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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