Kulman’s Stupendous “Jazzical” CD

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MUSSORGSKY DIS-COVERED / MUSSORGSKY: Gopak. Pesnja Mefistofelja v progrebke Auerbacha (Song of the Flea). Ozornik. MUSSORGSKY-THEISSING: Prelude, Groove and Drift – A Modest Fantasy. MUSSORGSKY: Serenada. SKUTA: Lapse. MUSSORGSKY: Trepak. THEISSING: Il sogno della bambola. MUSSORGSKY: S kukloj. THEISSING-MUSSORGSKY: Savishna at the Great Gate. MUSSORGSKY: Svetik Savishna. Ballets Russes. BREINSCHMID: Modest Reflections. THEISSING: Ballets Russes / Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo; Tscho Theissing, vln/arr; Arkady Shilkloper , Fr-hn; Antoni Donchev, pno; Georg Breinschmid, bs / Preiser 90785

In the brief notes I’ve seen regarding this CD, which was apparently released in 2011 (but I never heard of or saw a copy until I went hunting for it online), violinist and arranger Tscho Theissing insists that, despite the unusual combination of instruments and the style in which it is played, this album has nothing to do with “jazzing up” Mussorgsky in the strict sense of the term. “The ambitious concept of my arrangements was to use Mussorgsky’s musical material and my own imagination and my experience both as a classical and a jazz musician to create a landscape in which both are fused,” he writes. “The pieces combine the power of Mussorgsky’s compositions with our improvisatorial ambitions in such a manner that the voice retains the latitude to do what Mussorgsky intended it to do.”

Yet mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, who is the centerpiece of this disc, also commented that she took “liberties that burst the classical boundaries, particularly with regard to musical expression. In addition, some of the pieces that Tscho wrote for me allow me to integrate the sound of the instrumental parts, for example in the game of question and answer with the alphorn in ‘Darling Savishna’ and the dreamy vocalises in ‘Il sogno della bambola’.”

Thus what we have here is a perfect fusion of classical and jazz elements in fixed compositions with an unusual orchestration: violin, French horn, piano and bass with vocals. I should also add that, although Theissing claims no real jazz is in the scores, they are clearly played with a swing, and bassist Georg Breinschmid slaps his instrument as strongly as Steve Brown or Bob Haggart ever did. (Look them up if you don’t know who they were.) And the liveliness of the accompaniment is clearly an inspiration to Kulman. Normally a lively singer in any case, she is almost wildly uninhibited in several tracks on this album, particularly the opening Gopak. Moreover, I suspect that the “drunken genius” Mussorgsky, as he is referred to in the notes, would probably have grabbed a liter of vodka and thoroughly enjoyed the proceedings here. I also believe that, despite his protestations to the contrary, that not only Theissing but pianist Antoni Donchev are improvising their solos in Gopak and other tracks as well.

The famed Song of the Flea is a bit more circumspect in comparison to Gopak, but still looser in rhythm than it is normally sung (and especially played). Here, Kulman’s long experience as a great lieder interpreter serves her well; she is surely the best female singer of this well-worn song I’ve ever heard. Interestingly, Theissing adds some unusual shifts of harmony beneath the middle section of it, and swings the second half strongly. Listening to the way the quartet starts out in Ozornik, they almost sound like Spike Jones’ City Slickers. No fooling! But Kulman manages to remain centered on the text, with fabulous results. Theissing also shifts the rhythm from 4/4 to 3/4 briefly in the middle, and the squawking French horn at the end also sounds like something Spike Jones would have thrown in.

Next up is a Theissing original, Prelude, Groove and Drift, based on themes from Khovanshchina, Boris Godunov and A Night on Bald Mountain, the latter two instantly recognizable to Mussorgsky buffs. This one is quite a production, going on for ten minutes, and begins in a much more conventional classical style than the preceding three pieces, though it later moves into jazz rhythm with Arkady Shilkloper’s French horn solo. It is also purely instrumental, excluding a brief wordless chorus sung by the quartet, but it leads directly into a slow, sinuous arrangement of the “Serenada” from the Songs and Dances of Death, which halfway through assumes a jazz beat with (to my ears) improvised solos. Kulman is stupendous on this one.

Next up is Miki Skuta’s Lapse, subtitled “a meditation on the first and last three piano chords of ‘Trepak’,” after which we get the Trepak from Songs and Dances of Death itself, which becomes rather wild about a minute in. The only non-Mussorgsky piece on here, Theissing’s Il sogno della bambola, is a lyrical piece that uses Mussorgsky-inspired harmonies. It’s difficult to describe, but it includes a vocalise by Kulman that is very interesting and well done, and the tempo picks up at the three-minute mark to become quite wild. Then comes a song from Mussorgsky’s song cycle The Nursery, sung with smoldering intensity by Kulman to an equally smoldering background.

Savishna at the Great Gate is a sort of meditation/improvisation by Theissing on the last number from Pictures at an Exhibition in which he sounds rather like a cross between Stéphane Grappelli (of the Hot Club Quintet of France) and David Balakrishnan (of the Turtle Island String Quartet). This leads directly into a highly rhythmic arrangement of Svetik Savishna, with Kulman falling in with the quartet’s rhythm perfectly. Her opening vocal is followed by an uptempo instrumental treatment of the melody, with the rhythm section jumping behind Shilkloper’s hot French horn and Theissing’s equally hot violin. The tempo just keeps slowly increasing, as in the old days of New Orleans jazz, before Kulman re-enters to join them, now sounding quite Gypsy-like. A wild bass solo by Breinschmid then ensues, with Theissing playing hot pizzicato violin behind him. This then leads into some wildly creative solos, particularly by Donchev on piano. When Kulman re-enters, the whole thing meshes together and rides out to the finish line.

Ballets Russes quotes a theme from Khovanschina, an uptempo piece that mostly rides on the piano and bass, with the violin adding commentary. The French horn cackles like a demented trumpet in the slow section, and the bass ends it. This leads into Breinschmid’s Modest Reflections, which starts with the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” before moving into other themes, mostly featuring Donchev’s piano. There’s a nice chase chorus between the violin and French horn, so to speak, before the tempo drops down and slowly picks up again, featuring swinging half-choruses by the three principals (violin, French horn and piano). We end with the Ballets Russes Finale, an uptempo version of track 12 that runs only 38 seconds.

Sadly, an album such as this has a limited appeal. Jazz buffs don’t want to hear classical forms or a classical vocalist, and classical fans abhor jazz in their music. But HOLY CRAP IS IT GOOD! You’ve got to hear this one!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jack Mouse Presents His “Intimate Adversary”

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INTIMATE ADVERSARY / MOUSE: Barney’s Fife. Old, New & Used Testaments. Intimate Adversary. Adamant Inversary. Nineteen Sixty-Five. ‘Twas Never Thus. Jacomo. Three Heads are Better Than One. MOUSE-ROBINSON-BOWMAN: Three Free / Art Davis, tpt/fl-hn; Scott Robinson, t-sax; John McLean, gtr; Bob Bowman, bs; Jack Mouse, dm / Tall Grass Records TG 8284

Drummer Jack Mouse has been performing since his late teens with the kind of musicians I grew up with: tenor saxist Tex Beneke, trombonist-bandleader Buddy Morrow, clarinetist and tenor saxist Peanuts Hucko and vibist Red Norvo. His national prominence came after a three-year stint with the Falconaires, the jazz ensemble of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Since then he has played with Stan Kenton (another name I grew up with), Clark Terry, Herb Ellis, James Moody, Randy Brecker, Kai Winding, Bill Evans, Jon Faddis, Bob Mintzer, etc. etc. On this album he also shows his abilities as a jazz composer.

Barney’s Fife, a tribute to Don Knotts’ character on the old Andy Griffith Show, is a nice, uptempo piece built around an opening lick repeated as a theme with a more rhythm-oriented middle eight. Art Davis is an interesting but somewhat mellow trumpeter whose improvisations sounded to me like a cross between Clifford Brown and Clark Terry, while Scott Robinson’s tenor sax has a bit of grit in the tone here and there which I liked very much, occasionally going up into the instrument’s extreme top range. The piano-less rhythm section really swings.

Old, New and Used Testaments is a medium-slow Gospel-tinged number, again using a fairly minimal theme as its basis. McLean plays a bluesy guitar solo that leaned a little too far into the rock spectrum for my taste. The title tune, Intimate Adversary, is certainly one of the strangest on the album, opening with an out-of-tempo bowed bass solo by Bob Bowman that sounds atonal. When the piece develops, we hear a strange, slow, Latin-beat sore of tune played by McLean on guitar over the bass and drums. The solos are appropriately moody and low-key, but interesting. Later on, there’s a nice chorus played by Davis and Robinson in thirds.

This tune’s opposite number, Adamant Adversary, is also low-key in volume but much more uptempo, using its catchy but sparse theme as a launching pad for the soloists. Mouse plays some interesting rhythmic patterns behind the soloists, particularly Robinson. Nineteen Sixty-Five doesn’t sound so much like a piece from that era as it does a swing tune from the mid-to-late 1940s, but it’s cute and catchy, well played. Bowman has a nice plucked solo here, too. Twas Never Thus is a very slow, smoldering tune, not so much a ballad as a mood piece, the kind of thing you play late at night when you’re already feeling kind of down, with the lights turned low. The solos dovetail into the fabric of the music very well on this one, with Robinson channeling Stan Getz for a bit.

Jacomo is more uptempo, starting out with just McLean and Bowman playing together before Mouse enters, then the rest of the group. The rhythm shifts and changes here and there throughout the piece. Three Heads Are Better Than One probably refers to the three different themes that play contrapuntally against one another here; this is like inventive ‘50s jazz at its best. This tripartite quality extends into the first solo chorus, with trumpet, tenor sax and guitar all playing improvisations at the same time before McLean goes solo, then the leader on drums.

In the finale, a collaborative piece titled Three Free, Mouse sets up a sort of calypso beat which Robinson plays over plaintively while Bowman interjects bass notes in the background. This interplay continues, with Robinson playing weird quadruple-time figures later on. The rest of the group sits out as this strange interplay continues. It’s a surprisingly avant-garde and challenging piece, quite different from the rest of the album.

All in all, a good CD with some real highlights in it.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Christopher Hollyday Returns

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TELEPATHY / HUBBARD: One of Another Kind. POWELL: Hallucinations. DENNIS: Everything Happens. DUKE: Autumn in New York. ARLEN: I’ve Got the World on a String. PARKER: Segment / Christopher Hollyday, a-sax; Gilbert Castellanos, tpt; Joshua White, pno; Rob Thorsen, bs; Tyler Kreutel, dm / Jazzbeat Productions (available at http://www.christopherhollyday.com)

Christopher Hollyday, who first came to prominence in the 1980s, was considered a reactionary in his time, a musician who mostly played older, pre-free and fusion jazz. In this new album, there is a touch of fusion in Freddie Hubbard’s One of Another Kind, but his proclivities remain in the bop and swing fields. The difference is that, nowadays, there are dozens of artists who are doing the same thing, so he’s now in line with many other jazz artists.

One of the more interesting things about his performance on One of Another Kind is that his alto sax sounds suspiciously like a soprano. How he manages to stay so high up in the horn’s range is a bit of a mystery; some alto players certainly do ascend the scale for certain passages, but in his first solo Hollyday stays up there. Incredible chops. Gilbert Castellanos is a trumpeter who also harks back to the bop era, sounding like a disciple of Dizzy or Red Rodney (certainly not bad models), and pianist Joshua White swings a bit like Horace Silver. Except for the more modern, digital sonics, you almost feel as if you’re back in the early 1960s when bop was still part of the jazz mainstream.

I especially liked the tight, asymmetric arrangement of Bud Powell’s Hallucinations, and I was delighted by the drive and zest of this band. Hollyday still sounds soprano-ish here, but plays at least half of his solo in a more conventional alto register. Amazing, however, that his tone is so tight and vibrato-less; in this respect, at least, he resembles more modern jazz altoists rather than such older models as Bird and his disciples with their fuller, bluesier tones. The band keeps up their happy demeanor in Matt Dennis’ Everything Happens, which features an outstanding muted solo by Castellanos in his best Dizzy Gillespie manner. Hollyday, though his tone is less gritty, also pays a bit of tribute to Charlie Parker with some fairly authentic-sounding Bird-like improvisation.

Autumn in New York is taken at a very slow ballad tempo, with Hollyday sounding like a cross between Bird and Lee Konitz (Bird’s style, Konitz’ tone). White’s double-time, single-note solo is also very nice. I’ve Got the World on a String also uses a sparse arrangement with the leader front and center over the rhythm section, with Castellanos playing muted trumpet in the middle eight of the first chorus. One of the nice things about this performance is the way the solos dovetail into each other, feeding off each others’ ideas.

The finale, Parker’s Segment, is another tight, clever arrangement for the band, played uptempo and really cooking when the rhythm section unleashes its swing. Hollyday has, by this time, shaken off his soprano-sax leanings and is in full Bird mode. He even throws in an authentic Bird lick in his extended solo, one of the things that some critics called him out on back in the ‘80s, but is mostly original. Castellanos shakes off his Gillespie imitation, however, to produce a really fine bop solo with a few high-note outbursts, and pianist White is back in his own ‘50s groove.

Overall, a fine album. Traditional bop it may be, but very well and enthusiastically played.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Hans Winterberg’s Strange But Fascinating Music

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WINTERBERG: CHAMBER MUSIC, Vol. 1 / WINTERBERG: Suite for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Harpsichord. Suite in Bb for Clarinet & Piano. Sonata for Cello & Piano. Wind Quintet. Suite for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Piano / Arizona Wind Quintet with Theodor Buchholz, cel; Rex Woods, hpsd/pno; Tannis Gibson, Alexander Tentser, pno / Toccata Classics 0491

From the inlay on this CD:

The case of the composer Hans Winterberg (1901-91) is a strange one. A survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, where he had been interned as a Czech Jew, after the war he settled in Munich as a German citizen, and his music enjoyed a number of broadcasts—but after his death, his estate disappeared into the vaults of the Sudeten German Music Institute, where it was placed under embargo, emerging only in 2015. This first album of his music reveals an unusual and individual voice, an idiosyncratic blend of Stravinsky, Janáček and Hindemith, with touches of Poulenc, often expressed with brittle humour and rhythmic verve.

I also heard elements of ragtime in his rhythms and a bit of Françaix in his handling of chamber ensembles, but for the most part Winterberg was clearly his own man. The opening Suite for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Harpsichord, which also closes out this CD in the alternate version using a piano, is very much a strange piece. It has a tonal bias, occasionally landing in a definite key, but for the most part strays from tonality with what sounds like Middle Eastern harmonies.

By contrast, the suite for clarinet and piano has an almost Twilight Zone-like feeling about it, the music constantly swirling around and never touching a tonal center, thought it does flirt with one. This, the earliest piece on the CD, dates from 1944. The second movement in this also has a sort of Middle Eastern or Eastern European sound about it. As one moves into the cello sonata (1951), one starts to realize that, in a way, Winterberg’s music almost moves sideways rather than in a linear fashion.

As mentioned earlier, the CD closes out with the piano version of the opening suite. This is played at a slightly slower tempo, and the piano gives the suite a different sound texture, making the music sound “rounder” and less rhythmically acute.

This is very fine and interesting music. If I seem to have shortchanged these works by not giving more of a technical description of the music, it is not because of a lack of enthusiasm, but rather because the music is so good that it speaks for itself.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Schrekin’ Along With Schreker

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SCHREKER: Ekkehard, Symphonic Overture. Vom ewigen Leben (On Eternal Life).* Fantastic Overture. 4 Little Pieces for Large Orchestra. Prelude to a Grand Opera, “Memnon” / *Valda Wilson, sop; Deutsche Staatsphilarmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Christopher Ward, cond / Capriccio C5348

With the exception of Die Ferne Klang, which I simply don’t like because the music is episodic and there is far too much dialogue, I’ve really come to admire many of the works of the ill-fated German-Jewish composer Franz Schreker. This new album presents us with two early works (the Ekkehard Symphonic Overture and Fantastic Overture) plus three late ones, including the Prelude to a Grand Opera which may be the last piece he ever wrote (1933).

Ekkehard, dating from 1902-03 when Schreker was about 35 years old, clearly has echoes of Wagner and the influence of Strauss in it…perhaps even a bit of Mahler, using grand tonal themes in an interesting manner. Conductor Christopher Ward gets the German State Philharmonic of the Rhineland to play with exceptional warmth and a broad legato, which suits the music perfectly, yet also with an emotional engagement that suits the more excitable sections of the piece.

By contrast, the melodic and harmonic language of the two songs that make up On Eternal Life are quite modern, sort of a cross between Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Happily, soprano Valda Wilson has a fairly steady and attractive voice as well as excellent diction, and she sings them extremely well. The texts by Hans Reisiger are taken from poems by Walt Whitman. The orchestration is also quite different, mostly light and transparent, even using an organ in the second song for color.

The Fantastic Overture of 1904 is in the same Straussian-Mahlerian vein as the opening work. The tonalities shift within its tonal framework by means of changing chord positions, and after the slow, moody introductory section, it becomes almost menacing in its violent harmonic clashes. Yet there is also a well-developed middle section in which the music shifts to the major and becomes alternately dark and playful, with sweeping string figures playing against more ominous winds and brass.

The Four Little Pieces for Large Orchestra, dating from 1930, are subtitled “four sketches for a film,” but since I was not provided a booklet to download with this album I have no idea what film it was intended to go with. Here, too, we hear the more mature Schreker, more tonally ambiguous although a bit less adventurous than in On Eternal Life. The second piece is particularly lively and, for Schreker, almost cheerful in demeanor while the third, with its broad, expansive melodic contour, almost looks back to the earlier pieces.

The finale, a massive 22-minute-long Prelude to his grand opera “Memnon,” is clearly one of Schreker’s most imaginative works, using a sort of quasi-Middle Eastern theme and orchestration in its quiet opening. Eventually the tempo increases, as per usual, this time with a very odd theme that sounds neither Straussian nor Stravinskian, but strictly Schrekian. The piece almost has the militant sound of Mahler’s Sixth as the snare drum enters and a sort of march beat ensues, but of course in this case Schreker was not being prescient; the Nazis had been elected, were duly in charge, and very quietly began persecuting Jews, removing them from posts they had held for years and replacing them with Aryans. Schreker was one such victim, and it is suggested that the stroke that killed him in early 1934 was a result of his stress over this. It does, however, tend to drag towards the end and goes on rather too long.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and excellent CD of music by Schreker, well worth acquiring.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Elisabeth Kulman’s Great Lieder Recital

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SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen: Nos. 1 & 5. Mond, meiner Seele Liebling. Frauenliebe und Leben: Nos. 1, 3, 6-8. Du nennst mich armes Mädchen. Der Zeisig. Kinderwacht. Fantasiestücke: No. 3, Warum. Die letzten Blumen starben. Reich mir die Hand, o Wolke. Nachtlied. Mondnacht. Dichterliebe: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. SCHUBERT: Dithyrambe. Die Sterne. Rosamonde: Romance. Wehmut.  Am Tage aller Seelen. Klage. Schweizerlied.  REITER: Sachliche Romanze. Alte Frau auf dem Friedhof. Misstrauensvotum. Für die Katz. Ankündigung einer Chansonette / Elisabeth Kuhman, mezzo; Eduard Kurtrowatz, pno / Orfeo C 956 181 A (live: Schwarzenberg, August 26, 2017)

Several years ago, I reviewed an album of Liszt songs by mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, a name I had never heard before. It was utterly fabulous, not just in vocal control but also in the depth of her interpretations, but in the interim I heard a performance by her on YouTube in which her once-beautiful voice sounded unsteady and a bit rough, thus I approached this CD with a bit of trepidation.

Happily, in this recital, given in August 2017, she is very much her old self. Her voice is not conventionally “pretty” in the sense that Christa Ludwig’s was, but it has a nice combination of richness and metal in it, and it is again under perfect control. Her accompanist here is the same as on the Liszt recording, Eduard Kurtrowatz, and he, too, is very good, though his performances of the Kinderszenen excerpts are not quite as magical as those of Clara Haskil. Here, she begins with a program of Schumann songs in which she sprinkles five excerpts from Frauenliebe und Leben. I wish she had sung this cycle complete, as her interpretive and vocal skills are obviously perfect for the music, but beggars can’t be choosers. Interestingly, both the songs and the Kinderszenen excerpts are played and sung as an unbroken cycle, as if they were all part of the same score. This, too, is interesting. Kulman and Kurtrowatz have chosen songs that fit each other in terms of mood and, more often than not, key as well.

The program is not, then, performed exactly as it appears in the header of this review. After the fairly long Schumann series, they perform seven excerpts by Schubert, and in this she divides up the three verses or strophes of Dithyrambe with other songs in between, including four by composer Herwig Reiter, a name previously unknown to me—another interesting programming choice. Reiter’s Ankündigung einer Chansonette and Schumann’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, the opening song of Dichterliebe, are sung as encores.

In many ways, Kulman’s artistry harks back to what some romantically refer to as the Golden Age of singing. She even sings perfect little mordents or turns in Schumann’s Der Zeisig of a sort I rarely hear nowadays, and there is a passage in “Nun hast du mir” from Frauneliebe und Leben in which she drains the voice of vibrato. I may be wrong, but the voice also sounds fairly powerful, a rarity among lieder singers of almost any age (Ludwig and Schumann-Heink being among the exceptions to this rule). Her high range almost sounds a bit soprano-ish, like her great older colleague Waltraud Meier, yet her low range has more than a touch of a true contralto about it, and more than once (as in Mondnacht) she shows her ability to float her tone. No two ways about it, it’s a superb and remarkable voice, guided by high intelligence and deep feeling.

Reiter’s music, it turns out, is similarly tonal and romantic like the songs of Schumann, or perhaps a bit more like Hugo Wolf, with its shifting moods; without knowing that there was a change of composer, one would have a difficult time telling the difference between them. Only his Misstrauensvotum and Für die Katz sound more contemporary in sound and structure, though it is still tonal. Interestingly, Schubert’s Die Klage, which immediately follows the first of these, almost sounds like an answer to the Reiter song’s melodic and harmonic structure. Again, very interesting.

As mentioned earlier, the last encore is the first song of Schumann’s integral song cycle Dichterliebe. At the end, what I think she says (in German) is, “that’s all you’re getting. I’ll sing the rest next year!”

No question about it, this is one of the finest lieder recitals issued in recent years by any singer of any voice category. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Barton Pine Plays the Blues

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BLUES DIALOGUES / D. BAKER: Blues (Deliver My Soul). PERKINSON: Blue(s) Forms for solo violin. Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk). STILL: Suite for Violin & Piano. Lenox Avenue Suite: Blues. DA COSTA: A Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin. C. WHITE: Levee Dance. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood (arr. Logan). D. WHITE: Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin. WALLEN: Woogie Boogie. B. CHILDS: Incident on Larpenteur Avenue. ROUMAIN: Filter for Unaccompanied Violin. C. BROWN: A Song Without Words / Rachel Barton Pine, vln; Matthew Hagle, pno / Çedille CDR 182

Rachel Barton Pine is possibly the most highly marketed classical violinist in the world today. I’ve liked several of her previous releases, but this one really piqued my interest because it consists of works by a wide range of African-American classical composers, ranging from quite early (Clarence Cameron White, 1880-1960) to modern (Daniel Bernard Roumain, b. 1971).

One of the more racist qualities assigned to almost any black classical composer or, worse yet, any jazz composer who bases his or her work on classical form, is that such music is somehow “race treason.” I covered this to a fairly large extent in my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, and castigated the academic community on both sides of the musical aisle for this shameful stance. To make such a value judgment is, basically, to say that African-Americans (and composers of color from all nations) can only write formal music based on their indigenous folk music or spirituals, that nothing more complex is really valid.

I admit being surprised to see the opening selection by David Baker, who taught music (primarily jazz) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, but only because I knew of him primarily as a jazz educator who stressed the high quality of solos and not as someone who wrote music for violin and piano. His Blues (Deliver My Soul) fits neatly into the parameters allowed him by academics, but is also a very fine composition. I was even more surprised to hear how well Barton Pine adapted her classical tone and technique to this style with the proper slurring and “feel” of the music, which too many of her classical colleagues miss completely when they play this music. Since I was not provided a booklet to download with this CD, I don’t have any comments from her, but her approach to the music says it all. It has as much of a true feel for the style as any country blues fiddler or such jazz violinists as Eddie South or David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island Quartet.

From a formal perspective, however, I was even more impressed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Blue(s) Forms for solo violin. Here we have a work that clearly blends the two worlds of classical and jazz-blues so perfectly that one cannot imagine either element being absent. The music is hypnotic in its slow-moving, almost drawling style, yet has a very sophisticated form and leans towards modern harmonies. It is also bipartite in that, following the slow opening section, we get a faster second half that runs through canons and almost a partita form, including some dazzling double-stops and other difficult violinistic tricks. This is a great example of how one can blend jazz and classical together! By contrast, the same composer’s Louisiana Blues Strut is much more closely related to Cajun music of the bayous; it almost sounds like something that Michael Doucet would play with his band, BeauSoleil (which I was thrilled to hear in person once, at our very last Tall Stacks Festival here in Cincinnati).

We next get what is probably William Grant Still’s most famous chamber work, the tripartite Suite for Violin and Piano. For the uninitiated, it is divided into three sections, each inspired by a painting by an African-American artist. The first piece was suggested by Richmond Barthé’s African Dancer, the second by Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child, and the third by Augusta Savage’s Gamin. I’ve listened to several performances of this suite, mostly on YouTube, and am here to tell you that NO ONE ELSE plays the rhythms as well as Barton Pine and her pianist, Matthew Hagle. This performance is so good that, in a blindfold test, you would be forgiven for suspecting a black duo was playing it. Only in Mother and Child did I feel that Barton Pine was a wee bit too formal in her phrasing; otherwise, this is perfectly phrased and executed.

Noel DaCosta’s Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin once again presents us with classical music that just happens to have a jazz-blues bias. In the first piece in this suite, “Walk Around ‘Brudder Bones,’” DaCosta, born in Nigeria to Jamaican parents (which technically makes him African-Jamaican, not African-American), seemed to be leaning more towards hoedown music than anything in the blues or jazz realm, but that’s OK, too. Many so-called musicologists tend to forget that there were many African-American “country fiddlers” back in the 1910s and ‘20s. The second piece, “Neumedia,” is a cross between a blues and a ballad; the third, “Little Diamond/Bird on the Wing Jigs,” returns us to hoedown mode. “New Orleans Clog” is a medium-slow dance piece in which the violinist is required to stomp his or her foot as he/she plays while the finale, the “New Orleans Clog Blues,” is a short set of variants on this them. This is the world premiere recording of this suite.

Clarence Cameron White’s Levee Dance was one of the late Jascha Heifetz’ favorite encore pieces. People tend to forget that Heifetz really loved jazz-influenced pieces and recorded several of them for Decca in the mid-1940s because his primary label, RCA Victor, wouldn’t allow him to (among them Robert Russell Bennett’s Hexapoda: Five Studies in Jitteroptera). This one is based more on the kind of ragtime or cakewalk dances done around the turn of the 20th century, with the spiritual Let My People Go used for the middle section. It’s not the most sophisticated piece on this CD, but it is well crafted and Barton Pine plays it exceptionally well. She follows this with the first recorded violin version of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, and although I like the piece, I initially thought of a number of Ellington works that might have fit the theme of this album better. Yet I was really impressed by Wendell Logan’s startling and highly imaginative arrangement, which completely rewrites it harmonically, giving it a dark quality quite different from the muted-trombone smoothness of Duke’s original recording of the piece (Lawrence Brown did the honors). It is thus transformed from a pleasant “slow dance” number to a minor masterpiece.

Dolores White’s Blues Dialogue is another quite sophisticated work, divided into four contrasting sections and exploiting the technical aspects of the violin quite well, including quite broad portamento. By contrast, Errollyn Wallen’s Woogie Boogie is a permutation of boogie-woogie music, using highly syncopated backbeats in the piano part to sort of drag the rhythm in a different direction from the violin line—a very clever and appealing piece. The world premiere recording of Billy Childs’ Incident on Larpenteur Avenue has a distinctly classical feel to the rhythm and writing of the piano part, with all of the jazz feeling in the solo violin. Despite being a continuous piece, it is divided into contrasting sections, and the duo plays it extremely well. Roumain’s Filter for Unaccompanied Violin is a remarkable edgy classical work, really with only a little bit of blues inflections in the constant use of the flatted third slurred up to the unflatted version. It then moves into some nifty fast bow work, which Barton Pine plays to perfection.

The inlay for the back of this CD shows the final piece being Charles S. Brown’s A Song Without Words, a slow, moody piece that sounds like a spiritual but isn’t, yet my download tracks also included the Blues from Still’s Lenox Avenue Suite, a piece that I know very well from both Artie Shaw’s superb 1940 recording and Still’s own 1937 original version. I never much cared for the violin performances of this I’ve heard online, in part because the piece is much slower in the violin version but mostly because the violinists I’ve heard sound too stiffly formal. This one retains the slow tempo (apparently how Still wrote it), but both Barton Pine and Hagle catch the feeling of the piece much better than the others I’ve heard.

All in all, this is a superb CD, clearly one of Barton Pine’s real masterpieces. Highly recommended to any other classical violinist who wants to tackle these works, and listeners who enjoy jazz and blues-influenced classical music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Cho & Kim Play “Indianapolis Commissions”

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THE INDIANAPOLIS COMMISSIONS, 1982-2014 / TOWER: String Force. DANIELPOUR: As Night Falls on Barjeantane. ROCHBERG: Rhapsody and Prayer. SHENG: A Night at the Chinese Opera. KIRCHNER: For Violin Solo. KOKKONEN: Improvvisazione per Violino e Pianoforte. LUTOSŁAWSKI: Subito. ROREM: Autumn Music. ZWILICH: Fantasy for Solo Violin / Jinjoo Cho, violinist; Hyun Soo Kim, pianist / Azica 71321

Korean violinist Jinjoo Cho, winner of the 2006 Montreal International Music Competition and the 2014 Indianapolis International Violin Competition, here makes her CD debut playing pieces commissioned by the latter contest between 1982 and 2014. As you will notice, six of the nine composers listed here are famous names, although only one of these (Witold Lutosławski) is a foreigner. I admit being unfamiliar with the work of George Rochberg, Leon Kirchner and Joonas Kokkonen prior to hearing this album.

The album gets off to a very strong start with Joan Tower’s dynamic, exciting piece for violin alone, String Force. Serrated figures played with rapid bowing dominate this work, but Tower’s fine sense of musical construction ensures that it is not just a showoff piece. Despite the many technical challenges, it is a well-developed piece, quite outstanding in fact. Rotating triplet figures also dominate as the piece goes on, but again these figures are well worked into the musical structure.

By contrast, Richard Danielpour’s As Night Falls on Barjeantane (Nocturne for Violin and Piano) is a quiet, lyrical work, emphasizing his lyrical proclivities but surprisingly spiky harmonically (for him) and with moments of strength and drama. The depth of feeling that Cho pours into this piece elevates it and gives it an emotional force rarely heard in recorded performances of Danielpour’s music (which I generally like quite a bit). There’s almost a Bartók-like feeling to this work, part of it, I’m sure, due to Cho’s emotional investment. (If she played this piece for any of her competitions, I can understand her walking away with first prize, for music like this shows much more of what she can do than any technical showcase ever could.) Pianist Hyun Soo Kim is a good accompanist, though lacking Cho’s emotional power.

Rochberg’s Rhapsody and Prayer is another lyrical piece, somewhat interesting but, to my ears, rather formulaic compared to the Danielpour piece. It emphasizes minor keys, crush harmonies and a lot of violinistic virtuosity, although Cho does her level best to invest it with emotion. By contrast, Bright Sheng’s A Night at the Chinese Opera is a melodically and tonally strange piece, mixing Eastern and Western musical forms in that composer’s own unique way. The violin part uses a lot of portamento slides, using the violin as a sort of ersatz ehru. The second half of the piece, however, leans more towards Western form and harmony, and is very energetic rhythmically. Pianist Kim is unexpectedly fiery in her accompaniment.

Kirchner’s For Violin Solo combines lyricism with technical feats, but does so in a musical and structurally sound manner that I found intriguing. It is, however, a somewhat episodic work that requires great concentration from the listener. By contrast, Kokkonen’s Improvvazione is the most tonal and structurally conventional work on this CD, although a fine lyric piece with interesting harmonic twists and turns. In the second half, the tempo quadruples and it becomes quite virtuosic. Yet it is Lutosławski’s Subito that strikes one as the most complex and forceful piece on the disc, a superb composition that goes through several complex permutations. This is an absolute masterpiece that should be studied by all modern-day composition pupils, and once again it brings out the best in Kim.

Ned Rorem’s Autumn Music is typical of this excellent composer’s output, lyrical but with modern harmonies. It challenges the violin technically but does so in a way that does not put too much of an emphasis on sheer virtuosity. Basically, the music evolves in a single long line, connecting the sparse single notes of the piano accompaniment almost like a game of Pac-Man in slow motion as the violin plays emotional, lyric lines above it. Again, the tempo increases in the second half to allow the pianist and violinist to show off their chops a bit.

We end our musical journey with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s superb Fantasy for Solo Violin, another work that crosses the boundaries between passionate lyricism and dramatic flourishes, yet does so in a way that ties all of the loose ends together in a well-organized musical edifice. There are hints of jazz violin at the 1:50 mark, and Cho plays the whole piece with remarkable élan and beautiful tone. The music vacillates back and forth in this manner, juxtaposing these various elements (including the jazz violin “feel”) throughout its six-minute duration.

It’s a wonderful conclusion to a spectacular first CD for this very gifted violinist. Well worth investigating.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Huisman Tackles Sorabji

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SORABJI: Symphonic Nocturne / Lukas Huisman, pno / Piano Classics PCLD0119

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji has been characterized by those who don’t like his music as the ultimate culture snob, a man who withdrew his approval of public performances of his music in the mid-1930s because he was extremely piqued by the many who found his works turgid, overlong and pointless. Part of this is true. Between 1936 and 1976 he banned all performances as well as recordings of his music because he felt it was badly played when it was performed and attacked by critics even when it wasn’t. During this same period, he also refused to publish any of his music. Fortunately for him, he lived a very long time (to age 96!), and towards the end he finally found champions for his work, particularly the American pianist Michael Habermann, whom he finally gave permission to make recordings of it beginning in 1980.

Personally, I find Sorabji’s music utterly fascinating. Wikipedia, and approved musical experts, claim that his music was based on that of Debussy, Busoni and Szymanowski, but I also hear a great deal of Koechlin and the strong influence of Middle Eastern music, particularly Persian (modern-day Iran). Born in London to a wealthy Indian civil engineer who moved to London and an English mother, he was originally named Leon Dudley but hated the name and never considered himself British. This bitter fight for self-identification led to his being estranged from society in addition to his estrangement from the mainstream musical community; he spent many of the intervening years in his life writing acerbic but often witty musical criticism, some of which he published as a book titled Mi Contra Fa. It also didn’t help that he was a homosexual at a time when this was still outlawed in Great Britain.

Interestingly, though Sorabji’s music is quite technically difficult (some of it written on seven staves), he himself was not up to its tasks. When he premiered his magnum opus, the Opus Clavicembalisticum, around 1930—a work that takes four hours to perform and is played without a break—he was so overheated and dehydrated at its conclusion that he had to be hospitalized for a few days. In later years he made private recordings of his own works, such as Gulistān, in which there are numerous errors; his response to this is that the recording showed generally how the piece should be played.

This recording, which came out just before I started my blog in 2016 (which is why I missed reviewing it earlier), is the first recording of the Symphonic Nocturne, Sorabji wrote this in 1977-78, finishing it when he was 86 years old. It is his longest one-movement piece, and as usual his musical language is the same as his earlier works. There is a great deal of chromaticism in his music, as well as a penchant (different from Szymanowski) of having the melody and harmony “move as one.” Yet there are moments of tonal writing within its knotty texture in which the music temporarily achieves repose before it continues along its chromatic way. As Huisman wrote in the liner notes, “After one-and-a-half years of working with the music I start to get a fair overview of its build-up and yet, in many ways, the piece keeps its secrets. Most likely this has something to do with the absence of a clear central idea, structure, theme or even atmosphere… The more I played the piece, the less it seemed appropriate to divide it into two halves. In fact only on page 91 there is a double barline indicating some kind of important interruption, for the rest each idea elaborates on what was said just before—sometimes contrasting with what came just before, sometimes carrying on with the same momentum.”

But there are other moments of repose, even silence, such as at the 29-minute mark in the first half. Sorabji may have baffled and frustrated many a musician and musicologist over the decades, but he knew what he was doing. In many ways, his massive compositions bear as much of a relationship to the work of Charles-Valentin Alkan as to anyone else. I wonder if Sorabji was aware of Alkan’s work. It was certainly obscure during his lifetime but by no means hidden from anyone who wanted to discover it. At 35:36 in the first half there is a remarkable syncopated passage that goes against the grain of a nocturne (as do the numerous loud outbursts) and challenges the pianist to maintain a steady tempo. Later on, there are running single-note bass lines that double the time against the right hand figures. At 47:23, the whole “nocturne” picks up and becomes almost a ragtime dance for several bars.

I point out these seemingly unrelated details in order to indicate the intricate structure of the whole. Although he, like many classical composers, detested jazz, he unwittingly prefaced many of the elements that later jazz pianists would use as devices in their improvisations. Of course, there is nothing improvised in Sorabji’s music—it is thoroughly and resolutely through-composed—but these dance-like elements, quite different from his earlier music, indicate at least one significant move forward. Who knows? Sorabji may have hated Earl Hines or Fats Waller but somehow became fascinated by Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. This was, after all, their era. You never know how or why certain influences crept into his work.

Symphonic Nocturne p 106

Page 106 from the manuscript of the “Symphonic Nocturne”

Many of the same devices find their way into the second half of the piece; indeed, if anything, the music becomes more syncopated than ever before at the seven-minute mark. These are exactly the kind of things that Sorabji lovers anticipate and enjoy because they are so unexpected, yet also, by the same token, the things that irk those who dislike his music. You either buy into his concept and enjoy the ride, bumpy though it may be, or you walk away and reject it. There is little or no middle ground. Yet I still think that the piece was misnamed. Symphonic Fantasy would have been much more appropriate, as little or nothing in this piece can be described as nocturnal unless one is having vivid nightmares.

Huisman’s performance displays a warm tone as well as total immersion into the music as a whole, and the sonics are terrific, placing the piano front and center realistically. There are so few recordings of Sorabji’s works that those of us who enjoy him look forward to each and every one as a piece of the Holy Grail. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Moser Plays Lutosławski & Dutilleux

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LUTOSŁAWSKI: Cello Concerto. DUTILLEUX: “Tout un monde lointain” (Cello Concerto) / Johannes Moser, cel; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Thomas Søndergård, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5186689

I exchange Tweets online with a very fine and well-known British cellist, whose work I admire, but who sticks exclusively to the old-timey repertoire. None of my subtle suggestions that he at least expand his repertoire to include works written in the first 30 or 40 years of the last century, let alone this one, meets with any reception. And unfortunately, that is where far too many classical musicians’ heads are at, because most of their listeners are just as reactionary and resistant to anything with dissonance in it as they are.

Happily, Johannes Moser isn’t one of these, and so we have here two very fine cello concerti written in 1970. If I have not responded much in the past to the music of Witold Lutosławski, it is because I hadn’t heard much that excited or interested me, but this cello concerto is clearly a fine piece. Innovative, surprising and yet well constructed, it runs its course largely by means of jagged, rhythmic shards played by the cello and occasionally by the orchestra, which is scored in a surprisingly thin manner. There are not only no “thick” chords or textures but, on the contrary, one is seldom aware that there are even strings involved. Winds and brass do most of the work, with the strings tossed in here and there for color but not as a basis of the orchestration. The slow second movement is brooding and mysterious rather than lyrical in the conventional sense, although it is here that one is more aware of a string sound—mostly basses and cellos rumbling underneath the soloist, with high strings playing glissandi passages in tandem with the brass and winds. More often than not, this is a solo piece for cello with a little ambient orchestral sound floating around it, not the kind of give-and-take between the two entities that you might normally expect to hear. An utterly fascinating piece.

At least part of the performance’s success must be credited to the Berlin Radio Symphony, which plays with masterful understatement yet also with extreme textural clarity. Of course conductor Thomas Søndergård is a big factor in this, yet the execution of the notes and phrases are made by the musicians, not by him, and they do a spectacular job. When the trumpets, trombones and tubas literally explode in the third movement, one is taken aback not only because it is so unexpected but also because the exemplary precision of execution plays into the music’s strength. Were the notes produced any less than perfect in attack or duration, the music would not have the same effect. Naturally, in such an environment, the solo cellist must also be playing with a rather edgy sound as well, which of course is not natural for purveyors of this instrument. Most cello music is soft, round and warm; it envelops you in its richness and beauty. Moser manages to maintain a beautiful sound even in the edgiest passages, but beauty per se is not his primary focus. Much to my surprise, this concerto has a fourth movement, which begins not merely slowly but pensively, throwing off much of the angst of the first three movements. Only after the tempo picks up and some of the strange dissonance returns do we revert to the unsettled nature of the first three movements.

By contrast, the modern French concerto of Henri Dutilleux owes much to Olivier Messiaen. Its textures are also transparent, but orchestrated in an entirely different manner. Both the cello and orchestra play much more lyrically, and there are at least hints of melody running through the work. Dujtilleux’s orchestra, though sparse, focuses much more on soft strings played against equally soft winds, and the basses often dominate. The “Enigma” of the first movement sets the tone for the rest of the concerto, plunging the listener into a fascinating sound-world, supremely evoked by Moser and the orchestra. In the later movements, however, the music becomes more agitated, pulling the cello into the orchestra’s vortex like a cyclone.

These are clearly great cello concerti, and it’s a shame that too few famous cellists take the time to learn and play them. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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