Rare Early Broadcasts by Bream

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DOWLAND: Flow, My Tears.* Lachrimae Pavan. Fantasia. Now, Oh Now I Needs Must Depart.* Frog Galliard. The King of Denmark, His Galliard. What If I Never Speed?* The Earl of Essex, His Galliard. Can She Excuse My Wrongs?* Fine Knacks for Ladies.* If My Complaints Could Passions Move.* Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard. Die Not Before My Day.* BRITTEN: Songs from the Chinese.* The Shooting of his Dear.* Master Kilby.* The Soldier & the Sailor* / *Peter Pears, ten; Julian Bream, lute/gtr (live: Aldeburgh, June 7, 1958) / TELEMANN: Concerto (Trio Sonata) in D, TWV 42:D6 / Bream, lute; Aurèle Nicolet, fl; George Malcolm, hpd / TURINA: Sonatina for Guitar, Op. 61. SCHUBERT: Selection from Waltzes, Op. 9 (arr. for flute & guitar) / Bream, gtr; Nicolet, fl (live: Aldeburgh, June 23, 1959) / Doremi DHR-8060

 When RCA-Sony issued The Julian Bream Collection five years ago, the then-80-year-old guitarist-lutenist told The Guardian, “I’m a better musician now than when I was 70!”

But Bream was always a good musician—in fact, one of the greatest classical guitar and lute players who ever walked the planet.

Part of this is attributable to his background. As a young boy, he and his father were huge fans of jazz guitarists. While other would-be classical guitarists were listening to Andrés Segovia, the most boring blowhard in classical music history, he and his dad were listening to the likes of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.

Alas, too many classical guitarists follow Segovia’s lead. An upper-class snob who took up the guitar to make it “respectable” and who played mostly soft ballads, Segovia did so because he HATED the Gypsy and Flamenco traditions. Like Paul Whiteman, who endeavored to “make a lady out of jazz,” Segovia de-masculinized guitar playing. He had a poor technique but plenty of chutzpah. Bream had both chutzpah and technique. To this day, when a classical guitarist asks me to review one of his CDs, I’ll ask him, “Do you sound more like Julian Bream or Segovia?” I would also put Pepe Romero in that category of classical guitarists who play with oomph.

Bream could play delicately, to be sure, but he always had a rhythmic lift to his playing that most others lacked, and in faster or more exciting works he played with a stronger plectrum attack on the strings. For all I know, he still does; I haven’t heard him in some decades.

But these wonderful live performances date from early in his career, before he became a real household name worldwide. These are taken from pristine copies of BBC transcription discs and, although the microphone placement is close, it is not abrasive-sounding. Among the interesting things about this album is the fact that this is the world premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s Songs From the Chinese.

Peter Pears’ voice has always been a source of contention among listeners. Even though he used a fair amount of chest voice, it always sounded as if he were constantly singing in head, and the tone tended towards nasality. As he aged, it also showed an unsteadiness in the tone, particularly on records but not in person where the sound dissipated. (I know; I heard him in person twice, once in the Metropolitan Opera production of Death in Venice and once in a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art accompanied by harpist Osian Ellis.) Here the voice is pretty steady, and as usual his interpretive skills were first-rate. I also found it interesting to note that Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan is essentially the same tune as Flow, My Tears. Bream’s rhythmic acuity is felt strongly in his wonderful performance of the Fantasia and the little mordents he plays in Now, O Now I Needs Must Part. Take THAT, Segovia! He also plays beautifully behind Pears’ excellent rendition of What If I Never Speed?

Some of Britten’s Songs From the Chinese sound a bit like the old Elizabethan lute songs, using a fairly simple harmonic pattern, yet have enough odd changes within them to indicate that they are indeed from the 20th century. In “Dance Song,” about a unicorn, we have clearly arrived in the world of modern music. These performances find Pears in much better voice than his much later studio recording with Bream on RCA, issued as part of the large RCA-Sony set (listen to Pears’ wonderful vocal control in the soft high passages in “Depression”), thus these are clearly the preferred versions.

This performance of Telemann’s Concerto in D, arranged for the trio of flute, lute and harpsichord, would never pass muster with today’s HIP crowd: the phrasing is too elegant, with too much legato in it. Well, who cares? It’s wonderful, although George Malcolm is rather poorly miked; they all sound as if they’re having a ball playing the music. Oh, how awful! They need some Historically-Informed lessons! Bream is especially excellent in the “Vivace.” Happily, no one should complain of Bream’s performance of Joaquin Turina’s Guitar Sonatina; it’s lively and played with great attention to musical detail, and I love the Spanish “metallic” sound he elicits from his instrument, including a small bit of terminal vibrato on one note at the end of a phrase.

We conclude this second recital with arrangements for flute and guitar of Schubert waltzes—not great or inspiring music by any means, but certainly fun to listen to, particularly the way Nicolet and Bream play them. Nicolet’s flute is so bright in these that it almost sounds like a piccolo at times! All in all, a wonderful recital and highly recommended, particularly (but not exclusively) for Pears’ wonderful singing of the Dowland and Britten songs.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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A Great Petrucciani Concert from 1988

JAZZ Aktion 08_13

ONE NIGHT IN KARLSRUHE / PETRUCCIANI: 13th. One for Us. Mr. K.J. She Did it Again. La Champagne. WARREN: There Will Never Be Another You. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. COLTRANE: Giant Steps. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine / Michel Petrucciani, pno; Gary Peacock, bs; Roy Haynes, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-476 (live: Karlsruhe, July 7, 1988)

This 30-year-old concert tape captures Michel Petrucciani during his first flush of success, after his first recordings for Blue Note (Pianism, 1986 and Michel Plays Petrucciani, 1988). As part of a tour to help promote his second album, Petrucciani made a stop in Karlsruhe, where he gave this concert with bassist Gary Peacock and legendary bop drummer Roy Haynes, who had played with Bird and Dizzy.

Petrucciani was among the first younger artist to revive the concept of the piano trio after the unexpected death of Bill Evans, though his own style was (and remains) busier, not much related to Evans. He’s more like McCoy Tyner, or Herbie Hancock in those rare moments when the latter actually plays jazz and not fusion or funk.

And he is clearly in great form here. As usual, Haynes is both a lively and sensitive accompanist (Lester Young also appreciated his talents) and Peacock enlivens the rhythm with his swinging. But what grabs the ear is the pianist himself. Petrucciani is not only a great technician but also a strong believer in constructing his solos logically; he doesn’t play superfluous notes or inane “outside” licks and crushed chords. He understands the structure of each piece he performs and thus moves with the chords. And this is as true of his own tunes as much as the standards he plays on this set.

A good example is Harry Warren’s There Will Never Be Another You. After briefly stating the melody for a chorus, he’s off to the races in the second, but in doing so actually creates a contrafact, i.e. a new melody based on the chords of Warren’s song, and even in his third chorus he is still using a few notes of the original melody as part of his further improvisation. It’s a breathtaking feat, one that many aspiring pianists should endeavor to listen to. Haynes is much busier on this track, pushing the bass and piano forward with tremendous licks, but note how he fits into the surrounding structure as well. He doesn’t play flashy just for the sake of doing so. Peacock’s solo on this one is fairly staid from a rhythmic perspective and not at all dazzling, but he, too, manages to fit into the tune’s structure.

In Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, Petrucciani plays the little-known opening refrain of the tune before launching into the much better-known chorus, yet it is at the 3:58 mark, when he start improvising, that one’s ears pick up and start following his musical mind. At 6:14 he doubles the tempo yet somehow continues his musical train of thought.

This sort of musical creativity continues throughout the set, with Petrucciani continually surprising and delighting the listener with his musical acumen, even in pieces like One For Us or Mr. K.J. which seem to consist of a few unrelated notes tossed together to make an ersatz melodic line. Haynes also remains crisp and precise, Peacock supportive and buoyant. In Embraceable You, taken at a surprisingly brisk tempo, Peacock states the melody on bass (which, sadly, sounds out of tune here), but displaces some of the rhythm of the original notes, creating, if not an entirely new song, an entirely new version of the song, and the pianist follows in kind. Part of Petrucciani’s solo on this one consists of rapidly fluttering triplets, but triplets that follow the chord structure and thus create another new perspective on the music.

She Did It Again starts off with a bang, as a fast-paced boogie number headed for the finish line at Pimlico. An interesting thought: although the audience whoops and cheers on every tune, did they really pick up on what was going on musically? Or were they just impressed by the technique and flash of the musicians? I always wonder about that, even with jazz audiences, who generally know at least a little more about music than most classical audiences. On Giant Steps, for instance, I noted that although Petrucciani plays it well, he only does so by simplifying the complex chord sequence, which is meant to be B min7, D7, G min7, Bb7, Eb min7, G min7, Bb7, Eb min7, F#7, Bb min7. Try it sometime: it “sounds” fairly normal but isn’t!

Yet the concert as a whole is simply marvelous, as much as a treat for Haynes fans as for followers of the pianist. A real surprise is the very fast performance of My Funny Valentine, the slow jazz ballad supreme, on which Peacock and Haynes also contribute mightily and which ends up as a calypso tune. Highly recommended!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Svárovsky Conducts Smetana’s Symphonic Poems

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SMETANA: Richard III. Wallenstein’s Camp. Hakon Jarl. Festive Symphony: III. Scherzo / Slovak Philharmonic Orch.; Leoš Svárovsky, cond / Naxos 8.573597

For me, personally, Bedřich Smetana was a good but uneven composer. I love Ma Vlast, his string quartets and parts (but not all of) The Bartered Bride, but too many of his other music—like the parts of Bartered Bride that I dislike—are pretty but uninteresting to me, in one ear and out the other.

This is not entirely true of these elegant yet powerful tone poems. Yes, they are harmonically unadventurous, lacking the piquant interest of much of Dvořák’s output (or Martinů’s), but within their own limitations they are rhythmically interesting and have a good structure, not unlike the tone poems that make up Ma Vlast. Leoš Svárovsky, a conductor previously unknown to me, does an excellent job with them, although his penchant for slightly dragging out the length of notes to create a good legato sometimes gets in the way of the raw excitement (and to my ears, more Czech in accent) that Theodor Kuchar conjured up on his Brilliant Classics set of several years ago. Svárovsky’s softer approach is matched on this release by a warmer but less detailed sound profile, which for me dulls some of the more dramatic moments.

But this is not meant to demean Svárovsky. He is evidently a fine conductor who works hard to shape and pace the music his own way, and for those who like a more elegant line, he is clearly a good choice.

And truthfully, aside from Ma Vlast, these are the best of Smetana’s orchestral pieces (though you might also want to toss the Festive Overture in there as well). For whatever reason, his musical imagination was at its best here, as even a cursory listen will reveal.

I have described the differences in music approach between Svárovsky and Kuchar. The choice is yours!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Kimbrough & Co. Wow On Complete Monk Set

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MONK’S DREAMS / MONK: Thelonious. Light Blue. Played Twice. Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. Ask Me Now. Humph. Bright Mississippi. Reflections. Bemsha Swing. Teo. Blue Sphere. Crespuscle With Nellie. Think of One. 52nd Street Theme. Eronel. Bluehawk. Little Rootie Tootie. Two Timer. Ruby My Dear. Boo Boo’s Birthday. San Francisco Holiday. Functional. I Mean You. Shuffle Boil. Monk’s Dream. Evidence. Misterioso. Four in One. Brake’s Sake. Pannonica. Bye-Ya. North on the Sunset. Introspection. We See. In Walked Bud. Nutty. Trinkle Tinkle. Blues Five Spot. ‘Round Midnight. Jackie-ing. Well You Needn’t. Sixteen. Locomotive. Gallop’s Gallop. Children’s Song. Blue Monk. Friday the 13th. Criss Cross. Raise Four. Let’s Call This. Who Knows? A Merrier Christmas. Stuffy Turkey. Monk’s Point. Work. Brilliant Corners. Off Minor. Hackensack. Oska T. Let’s Cool One. Hornin’ In. Coming on the Hudson. Straight No Chaser. Monk’s Mood. Green Chimneys. Rhythm-a-ning. Ugly Beauty. Skippy. Something in Blue. Epistrophy / Frank Kimbrough, pno/arr; Scott Robinson, t-sax/bs-sax/tpt/echo ct/bs-cl/contrabass sarrusophone; Rufus Reid, bs; Billy Drummond, dm / Sunnyside Records SSC 4032

Seventy of Thelonious Monk’s compositions, not including a few that he made up on the spot during a gig like Chordially, are presented here on six well-filled CDs by pianist Frank Kimbrough and his talented quartet. Although Kimbrough has not been a “Monk specialist” over the decades of his career, he has evidently always studied and occasionally played his music and always got something vital and important out of them.

There are, of course, two ways to view this set. One would be if they were consciously trying to channel Monk’s style, including his quirky and asymmetric sense of rhythm: this they only do occasionally. The second would be to listen to the set as Kimbrough’s own “take” on Monk, slightly changed in tempo and rhythm, not trying to replicate Monk but presenting him in a new light. Since this is the course this set has taken, the question becomes, “How successful is it in that respect?”

Actually, it is pretty successful as long as you realize from track 1 of CD 1 that this voluminous exploration of Monk is a tribute in which most of the songs are rearranged to suit Kimbrough’s vision of the music. After all, the quirky, often stiff-sounding rhythms of Monk’s own performances (the late Ralph Berton called him “the Stravinsky of jazz”) are seldom played correctly by anybody. Say what you like, but Thelonious Monk is much harder to imitate than Art Tatum. In addition, Kimbrough often changes the tempo and/or the original scoring that Monk used, i.e. using a contrabass sarrusophone on Little Rootie Tootie. It’s another way of looking at Monk’s music, which is why I think the set is appropriately titled Monk’s Dreams.

Yet more often than not, Kimbrough stays close to Monk’s tempi and use of instruments, particularly in the opener, Thelonious, which the pianist-composer often used as a theme song. Here, multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson plays crisp trumpet, sounding a bit like Clark Terry in tone during his solo, then quickly switching to tenor sax which he plays in the high range, sounding a bit like Sonny Stitt. Kimbrough’s own solo may not have Monk’s quirky rhythms and splayed-fingered attack, but he clearly understands the unusual descending chromatics of the chord progression and has a ball with it. The rhythm section sounds joyous and effervescent in the background.

In the very next song, Light Blue, Kimbrough’s rearrangement shows how he sometimes chose to differ from the original. The opening chorus keeps trying to play the theme, but the musicians keep slowing down and stopping every two bars until, finally, they decide to keep the pace up. The tempo here is a bit slower than the slowest performance I’ve previously heard by Monk himself. The great Rufus Reid gets to play a really nice, inventive chorus on this one, bending notes and playing around with the time. Kimbrough’s solo, as in many of these tracks, takes a halfway point between standard jazz piano style and Monk style, and Robinson’s tenor here does have a certain resemblance to Charlie Rouse, Monk’s favorite tenor player.

With 70 tracks to review, I clearly won’t have enough space in this review to discuss them all, so allow me to make a few comments on the more unusual and/or impressive ones. Played Twice, like several other tracks, is given a swing treatment, but Robinson’s tenor captures the rhythmic quirkiness of Monk’s own approach. A swing feel is not entirely foreign to Monk’s aesthetic; he loved swing music and especially Duke Ellington, who he based his piano style on. One of the really satisfying aspects of these performances is the way the whole quartet works and “feels” the music together, presenting a unified view of each score. It’s obvious to the listener than they all love Monk, not just Kimbrough.

One little touch that surprised me was the very breathy sound of Robinson’s tenor in the opening out-of-tempo into to Ask Me Now. I mention this because in an odd way, it reminded me of Pee Wee Russell’s wonderful recording of this tune for Impulse on the album of the same name. I wonder if Robinson and/or Kimbrough listened to that performance. Interestingly, Robinson’s trumpet on Bright Mississippi clearly shows its origins using the chord changes of Sweet Georgia Brown by playing that earlier tune in the last four bars of his solo. Robinson switches to bass sax on Bemsha Swing to good effect.

Think of One was one of about a half-dozen titles in this set I had never heard before; it’s quintessential Monk, a quirky tune with a stutter-step in it, using a single note repeated in an odd rhythm as a melody.

The overall impression one gets, then, is of a very gifted and unified (I stress that again) quartet playing Monk as if they couldn’t get enough of him in new arrangements that sometimes channel the originals but often take unexpected new turns. Monk himself may not have liked some of these performances—he was often critical of his own versions, so who knows?—but the set certainly gives you a good impression of Thelonious as a jazz composer, and that’s what is important in the long run. On Blackhawk, Robinson plays both trumpet and echo cornet, using the latter to answer his own phrases; a chase chorus played by one man.

San Francisco Holiday, another tune I hadn’t heard before, is one of those pieces that, although fascinating in a way that only Monk could be, sounds a bit crazy, a swirling downward chromatic melody in eighth notes set to almost demonic-sounding harmonies. Most of these performances really cook, and I Mean You is just one of many where you just put your critical judgments aside and enjoy the performance. In the liner notes, Kimbrough says that he tried to stay away as much as possible from pedal effects, which Monk seldom used, and try for a more percussive sound, and this is one track where that comes across beautifully. Reid also plays nice bass on this one, trading fours with Billy Drummond, but I wish Reid had a little more to play on some tracks. Crepuscle With Nellie, a true composition that calls for no improvisation, and Functional are given as piano solos. Shuffle Boil is another tune that Kimbrough takes at a slower tempo than Monk normally did, but still has a Monk “kick” to it.

Robinson and contrabass sarrusophone

Scott Robinson and his contrabass sarrusophone

Evidence sounds, through most of it, like a piano trio performance, but near the end Robinson comes flying in on tenor, moving the intensity and interest up to another level. Misterioso is yet another piece taken at a different tempo, in this case a shade faster than Monk’s own. Once again, Robinson plays the contrabass sarrusophone, and here it sounds even more like an old, grumbling bullfrog. Somehow, Robinson manages to throw in a reference to Mack Gordon’s Serenade in Blue during his solo in the very complex Four in One. I also liked the nice slow-dance swagger the band gave to Pannonica, Monk’s tribute to the legendary “jazz baroness,” Nica von Königswarter. Bye-Ya, on which Robinson plays bass sax, is given a quasi-Latin beat mixed with swing. Introspection, another Monk tune I was not previously familiar with, is one of his more “normal” swing pieces, not terribly adventurous harmonically and thus easily accessible to even trad-swing musicians. On We See Robinson switches to another odd instrument, the “echo cornet” (switching to normal trumpet for the last chorus).

Kimbrough’s arrangement of Monk’s most famous piece, ‘Round Midnight, is another one of his more imaginative, starting with Reid’s bass playing against Drummond’s cymbal washes for a full chorus. (One of Monk’s finest arrangements of this tune was the one made for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band of the 1940s, captured in a live concert recording.) Jackie-ing is given a sort of kooky, off-rhythm Latin sound, like a conga with one beat missing in each bar and the drummer playing backwards. The bass sax makes its return in Well, You Needn’t, on which Kimbrough plays one of his most Monk-like solos. Sixteen is one of Monk’s quirkiest pieces; it doesn’t really sound like a finished composition, but more like a string of uneasily-related riffs, yet the quartet manages to make something “finished” out of it. Locomotive, despite the mental images conjured up by the title, is taken at a slow, insinuating pace with Robinson on bass clarinet.

Gallop’s Gallop was another piece I hadn’t heard before, but again, it is typically Monk-ish. Kimbrough smoothes out the rhythm of Blue Monk just a little but still captures its essence. They do a really bang-up Monk-style version of Criss Cross and manage to make something interesting out of yet another sketchy tune, Raise Four. By contrast, Let’s Call This, another piece I hadn’t previously heard, is a real composition with a really lovely melodic line. The equally obscure Who Knows? is one of Monk’s finest pieces, using downward chromatics along with stepwise chord changes, which alternate with more conventional ones. Robin’s bass sax is literally bursting with ideas on this one. I was also surprised by the gentleness and lyrical quality of A Merrier Christmas. Robinson plays his tenor mostly in its high range on this one, sounding a little like Paul Desmond. Stuffy Turkey, another little-known tune, is a real swinger, with Robinson coming in like a banshee for his soprano sax solo.

Their performance of yet another little-known piece, Monk’s Point, makes it sound like abstract jazz; it’s broken up into little shards or motifs on the piano, with the bass and drum creating unusual, shifting patterns behind it. Like Monk himself, Kimbrough and his quartet make a real swinger out of Work. The contrabass sarrusophone makes another surprise appearance on Brilliant Corners, a piece on which Monk himself used bright, not dark, voicing (personally, I think the trumpet would have been more appropriate on this one). At about the halfway mark they quadruple the tempo for a chorus, then return to the slower pace until Kimbrough’s second solo chorus when he ramps it up once again. The sarrusaphone appears again on Straight, No Chaser while Monk’s Mood starts off played by the bass with piano and soft cymbal fills.

Rhythm-a-ning is a real jamfest, with Robinson wailing on both the bass sax and trumpet and Drummond going nuts behind all of them. After a nice performance of Ugly Beauty and a really hot one of Skippy, we get an absolutely lovely performance of the little-known Something in Blue (with Robinson’s soft, breathy tenor sounding quite a bit like Ben Webster) before ending the set with Monk’s earliest known tune (first recorded in 1942 by Cootie Williams as Fly Right) and one of his signature pieces, Epistrophy. This is given a polyrhythmic beat, with Kimbrough playing eights rather than the traditional triplets in the background while Robinson plays the melody on baritone. The band then stretches it out while straightening out the beat and really swinging to the finish line.

Poor Thelonious suffered most of his adult life from paranoid schizophrenia, which was not properly treated because it wasn’t learned until several years after his death that it was caused by a virus, and thus treatable with tetracycline. Monk went in and out of mental hospitals at various points in his career, yet somehow was able to create a unique sound world of “ugly beauty” that has stood the test of time. Like all paranoid schizophrenics, he had his lucid moments and could be unusually kind and understanding towards the musicians who played with him, but in his dark moments he was anti-social, isolated and unreachable, even by his long-suffering and loving wife, Nellie, the only person who could handle him. Yet I don’t know a single jazz musician—not even most trad jazz musicians—who doesn’t see and hear much of Monk’s music as unique and vital. This is probably due to the fact that it always had a connection to the Swing Era, which is when Monk came to maturity. Like the idiosyncratic classical music of Moondog, Thelonious Monk’s jazz is tied to tradition while breaking barriers that no one else could hear coming. And there is also the fact that, once you get used to the unusual harmonies and occasional Stravinsky-like rhythms, it’s fun to play, just like the music of Ellington and Fats Waller.

On this wonderful set, it’s also fun to listen to.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Celebrating Zwilich’s Passionate Diversions

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PASSIONATE DIVERSIONS / ZWILICH: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass & Piano.* Trio for Piano, Violin & Cello. Septet for Piano Trio & String Quartet+ / The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio; *Michael Tree, violist; *Harold Robinson, bassist; +Miami String Quartet / Azica ACD-71292

Here’s a splendid disc from 2014 that I was not permitted to review for the classical magazine I was writing for at the time, but which I’m writing about now because I am absolutely infatuated with the music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, which contains three excellent chamber works by this oft-recognized but infrequently-performed woman composer.

Zwilich’s music inhabits a zone somewhere between the neo-tonal music so popular today (but not when she first started writing in that style, back in the 1980s) and more harmonically adventurous territory. The very opening of the Quintet is a perfect example: what sounds a bit challenging harmonically at first quickly morphs into tonality, but doesn’t stay there. It constantly shifts back and forth, like a fleet-footed and clever boxer who varies his approach in the ring in order to baffle his challenger. One of her great assets is an ability to write melodic lines that are recognizable as such but do not indulge themselves in mawkish sentimentality. It is music that constantly challenges the ear but does not offend it with gratuitous “edginess” for the mere sake of trying to startle one.

And happily, it is played here by a veteran chamber group that is famous for its ability to penetrate the heart of the scores it performs, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. They are joined, in the first piece, by well-known American violist Michael Tree, a veteran of the Marlboro Festival concerts of the 1960s, and bassist Harold Robinson, who work with the trio hand-in-glove. Two of the three are 21st-century compositions by Zwilich: the quintet from 2010, the trio from 1987 and the septet from 2008. One of the more remarkable moments in the first piece is the second movement, titled “FANTASY: ‘Die launische Forelle,’” which is sort of a lazy-sounding melody using string portamento in a manner resembling the jazz-classical pieces of the Turtle Island String Quartet. The performers even give it a jazz swagger, which surprised me for such a dyed-in-the-wool classical group. The last movement is also highly syncopated with jazz allusions. Here, Zwilich writes a syncopated pizzicato bass line that simulates the kind of work a jazz bassist might do. As usual, Zwilich does not overwrite anything; her music is as concise as a Dickenson poem.

Interestingly, the first movement of the Trio almost sounds like a continuation, or counterpart, of the first movement of the Quintet, but in some ways the music here is busier, more complex and less obviously tuneful. It is, in fact, a tightly-argued and concise piece, using pauses as part of the overall structure. The slow second movement, by contrast, sounds forlorn yet edgy, with an almost Mahler-like feel to it: emotional and deeply moving but not sentimental. I particularly liked the gentle rocking rhythm that the piano sets up around the four-minute mark, at which point the music takes a quite unexpected turn. The last-movement “Presto” continues without a break, suddenly shifting the music to an almost manic feel without changing the dark mood. Here, Zwilich does not use pauses for dramatic emphasis but, rather, long-held notes that suspend both the beat and the feeling until the music suddenly takes off again, almost lurching forward in short, jagged strokes.

The Septet follows, also in a minor key and again pursuing a dark, edgy quality. Her use here of a minor mode gives the music a slight Middle Eastern feel, while the syncopated cello line reminds one of the latter part of Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone music. The first movement comes to an almost crashing halt, while the second, opening with an ominous-sounding cello line, leads into a sad-sounding melody played by the viola before the other instruments enter, the string quartet sustaining long notes while the piano trio plays edgy music around them. Eventually the whole group merges to play a passionate lyric line before the piano’s stuttering but driving rhythm pushes the music to a quiet ending.

In the third movement, the stuttering piano opens things before the music again, surprisingly, shows a bit of jazz influence. The flatted third or “blue” note is featured in the piano line, and the strong syncopations allude to jazz as the whole group slowly attempts to swing. The quick coda of this movement leads immediately into the finale, titled “Au revoir,” which begins with another of Zwilich’s slow and achingly poignant Mahler-like statements before, suddenly and surprisingly, increasing the tempo and becoming edgy before again slowing down for the finale.

What a musical ride this is! Highly recommended, as usual for nearly everything Zwilich has written!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Valentina Tóth Tackles “Ruralia Hungarica”

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DOHNÁNYI: Ruralia Hungarica. Humoresken in Form einer Suite. Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song / Valentina Tóth, pno / Challenge Classics CC72775

Though mostly a 20th-century composer, Ernö Dohnányi was very much a retro-Romantic composer. My regular readers know that, for the most part, I am allergic to Romantic music, but I’ve always found Dohnányi’s pieces very charming when taken in small doses.

Most of the Ruralia Hungarica is quite good because Dohnányi based it on Hungarian folk music, eagerly poring over the large collection of Hungarian and Transylvanian tunes recently published by Bartók and Kodály. Interestingly, Valentina Tóth gives this music a swagger not unlike jazz music, particularly in “Presto, ma non tanto” that I’ve never quite heard before. Like so many modern pianists, she has technique to burn and plays with a straightahead, no-holds-barred style that does not brook lingering or rubato touches. Some listeners might miss these in this recital, but I, for one, find it a breath of fresh air. Certainly the surviving recordings of Bartók’s and Kodály’s music played or conducted by the composers clearly eschew rubato or rallentando effects. It is NOT the Hungarian style to do so, and in the “Andante poco moto, rubato” Tóth gives us just enough of the former to make the music expressive without making it sentimental or mawkish. She also achieves a nice “floating” sound on the piano, not unlike the effects that Alfred Cortot could create at the keyboard.

Immediately following, Tóth attacks the “Vivace” as if it were a relentless, driving piece, which for the most part it is, pulling back very slightly for the softer passages. The “Allegro giocoso” is quite playful, the “Adagio non troppo” moody and smoldering.

The much earlier Humoresque in the Form of a Suite (1907) has less harmonic interest than the Ruralia Hungarica, but is a nice, solidly-written piece—nothing to write home about, mind you, but I wouldn’t walk out on it if it were given at a concert. The second movement “Toccata” and final “Introduction and Fugue” are the most interesting pieces in the suite, at least to me. The remainder of the suite sounds a bit too much like Victorian-era pop music for my taste. The concluding Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song is, again, pleasant but unremarkable.

Overall, however, I enjoyed Tóth’s playing very much. When the music called for something extra, she had it to give. A fine recital.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mingus and Sikora Pay Tribute to Butterflies

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CHRYSALIS / MINGUS-SIKORA: The Work of Spring. Hangin’ Under the Leaves. Bugs in the Sun. Wrapped Up Tight. The Inconvenience of Wings. Inside the Chrysalis. Slip Into Liquid. Nabukov’s Net and Needle / Eric Mingus, voc/bs/gtr; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/sop-sax / private issue available as download or cassette tape

Here’s something highly unusual: an album of pieces dedicated to butterflies, and specifically influenced by Vladimir Nabokov’s study of them, by Charles Mingus’ son Eric and saxophonist Catherine Sikora. The album, which came out on November 9, is only available via a limited run of 50 cassette copies or as a digital download from Bandcamp.

The music is an unusual combination of old-time blues (both in the guitar work and the soulful singing) with more modern jazz forms. On the opening track, Sikora’s tenor saxophone plays subliminal but atonal commentary beneath Mingus’ spoken lines, and the guitar work also slowly morphs towards atonality. It’s really difficult music to describe, but fascinating to listen to. The words in this first piece center around a butterfly trying to avoid a predator’s eyes while bursting forth to enjoy the blossoming of spring. Again: very unusual and hard to describe, but interesting!

The second track opens with Sikora’s tenor while Mingus plays buzzing sounds on the bass (probably emulating insects) before moving back to the guitar—yet the buzzing bass continues to make its presence felt. This perfectly captures the piece’s title, Hangin’ Under the Leaves. Eventually, Sikora plays in double time, creating swirling figures to simulate a butterfly in flight. And please note: this music is not so far out that it has no grounding in musical form. As Mingus’ father once famously said, “You can’t improvise on nothing!”

eric mingusOn Bugs in the Sun, Mingus creates another poem about the life of a butterfly while playing a drone on his bass while Sikora triple-tracks herself on saxophones, dovetailing busy, swirling triplets around one another. To my mind, this is music influenced by Eric’s father but not a carbon copy by any means, even though his later bowed bass solo resembles some of Charles’ work. Wrapped Up Tight begins with pizzicato bass with guitar, playing odd figures with a blues bias before Sikora comes flying in on soprano sax. There’s a certain spaciness in this music that I really liked. Sikora is an outstanding improviser who really creates music when she plays, not just flurries of notes with no interior logic or meaning.

sikoraShe remains on soprano for The Inconvenience of Wings, opening the track a cappella before Mingus enters, almost stealthily, on guitar, playing a few sparse chords here and there behind her. By the way, I really liked his guitar work because it has an edge to it. I’m sick of listening to “soft jazz” guitarists nowadays. Inside the Chrysalis is undoubtedly the strangest piece on the album, beginning with quiet but busy pizzicato bass figures while a celesta tinkles lightly in the background. Sikora returns to tenor on this one, and her extended improvisation is superb, yet the heart of the piece is the prose poem recited by Mingus while a chorus of Minguses, multiple tracked, hum in harmony behind him. Afterwards, Sikora returns to play some really “outside” improvisations that fill out the rest of the track.

Slip Into Liquid starts with Sikora playing tenor, followed by another triple-tracking session of her horn. This goes on for some time, with more and more sax “voices” added to the mix, until it becomes a jumble of sound. One would have to listen carefully to this piece several times over just to hear what each line is doing. By the 4:20 mark, however, some of the voices drop out, and in fact towards the end there are only four Sikoras playing—two interweaving their lines and the other two playing a drone B-flat that slowly creeps up in volume and overtakes the music until the fade-out ending. Trippy!!

On the last track, Nabukov’s Net and Needle, Mingus’ bass plays an alternating drone figure that grumbles like a bullfrog in a pond, joined eventually by Sikora on tenor playing alternating bluesy and busy lines. Mingus then comes back in for a sort of sung poem about “catching the light” and “the use of curious tools,” the “drive to collect you and put you on display.” When the poem and music stop, Mingus plays a bass drone high up on his instrument while a sort of light percussive sound goes on in the background. The drone eventually becomes an insistent rhythmic figure, then after another pause one hears Sikora playing down very low in the tenor sax range, sad little figures, evidently representing the dead butterflies. And that’s how it ends.

This is clearly one of the most creative, original and interesting jazz albums I’ve heard all year. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Bêlohlávek Presents a Martinů Premiere

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MARTINŮ: What Men Live By* / Ivan Kusnjer, bar (Martin the cobbler); Lucie Silkenova, sop (Woman with child); Ester Pavlů, alto (Old Woman); Jaroslav Březina, ten (Narrator); Petr Svoboda, bs (Old peasant); Jan Martiník, bs (Stephanitch); Josef Špaček, speaker (Narrator); Lukáš Mareček, speaker (A boy); Martinů Voices / Symphony No. 1+ / Czech Philharmonic Orch.; Jiří Bêlohlávek, cond / Supraphon SU 4233-2 (live: *Prague, December 17-19, 2014 & +January 13-15, 2016)

This CD presents the first commercial recording of Martinů’s one-act “opera-pastoral” What Men Live By. Written in 1952 to a libretto by the composer after Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is, this performance is taken from Jiří Bêlohlávek’s 2014 concert performance. The plot concerns a lonely old cobbler, Martin Aveditch, whose wife and children are dead. He works in a basement where he can see passersby walking in shoes he has made through a window; his only friend, an old peasant, suggests that he read the Bible, which becomes a source of pleasure. He then purportedly hears the voice of Christ telling him to look out the window the next day to see him; when he does, he first sees an old soldier who he invites in for a cup of tea and then takes care of a poor woman and her child. He also puts in a good word for a boy who steals an apple from an old peddler. When Christ again talks to him the next day and asks if he “recognized” him, Martin sees the faces of these people.

Since the opera was written while Martinů lived in America and premiered at the Interlochen Music Festival in 1954, it was written in English, so language is clearly not a barrier, but at only 39 minutes long, it’s easy to see why it’s rarely performed. What to pair with it? Yet the music is, as I say, consistently lovely. This was one of Martinů’s great strengths: he could, and did, write in several different styles. You might almost confuse this for a short opera by Gian Carlo Menotti except that the melodic and rhythmic contours of the music are more interesting and original.

The singers all have passably good if somewhat astringent voices but, being Slavic, sometimes have pronunciation problems with English—not severely so, but noticeable. “Martin,” for instance, comes across as “Mottin.” Of course, this is probably what British and American singers must sound like to Italian, French and German audiences when they sing in those languages.

In the end, however, I felt that although the score was good, it was not really great. The semi-parlando style of most of the sung lines carries the text well and faithfully, but doesn’t stay in the memory. This, too, is a weakness, and one that I’m not sure would sustain it for repeated stage presentations, though the orchestral writing IS interesting, tuneful and memorable. I personally feel that, because of its quasi-religious nature and the subject, it might be given as a Christmas work, the operatic equivalent of Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Certainly, one its blessings is that the vocal writing is grateful; it does not cover a wide compass, is easy to sing, and every so often is meltingly melodic. A cast of good operetta singers (and chorus) could handle this music quite easily, particularly in an intimate setting such as a local church or a school auditorium. It’s shorter than Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, bouncier in its rhythm, and its structure is stronger and more unified. Its orchestra writing, though somewhat challenging, is also not extremely difficult for many big cities’ local chamber orchestras.

As a filler, Bêlohlávek’s 2016 performance of the First Symphony is also included. It’s a fine performance if not measurably better than the one by Cornelius Meister in his Capriccio set of Martinů’s complete symphonies.

Thus this disc is recommended for hearing the opera, which I think you will really life if not love.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Bruno Monsaingeon Delves Into Rostropovich

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THE INDOMITABLE BOW: A FILM BY BRUNO MONSAINGEON / also includes TCHAIKOVSKY: Variations on a Rococo Theme: Variations VII & VIII, coda.+ BEETHOVEN: Piano Trio No. 7, “Archduke.”* BACH: Cello Suite No. 2 in d min.: Sarabande / Mstislav Rostropovich, cel; *Yehudi Menuhin, vln; *Wilhelm Kempff, pno; +Boston Symphony Orch.; +Seiji Ozawa, cond / also contains conversations with Olga & Elena Rostropovich, Natalia & Ignat Solzhenitsyn / Naxos 2.110583 (DVD)

In addition to being a great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich’s contribution to the world was that he used his fame to commission, inspire and perform more new works for the cello than any other such artist in the 20th century. Sadly, not all of them have become standard repertoire—cellists still cling to such works as the Dvořák Cello Concerto (a good piece, but sentimental and maudlin in places) as more important to their repertoire than many of the very great cello concerti written since, which in some ways nullifies much of the hard work Rostropovich did to break that barrier.

He was also a conductor, though in this sphere he was often slow and sentimental in his approach, and a humanitarian who fought against the Soviet regime in tandem with his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who survived him by five years.

This video portrait by Bruno Monsaingeon had its origins in the year 2000, when Rostropovich invited him to his house in Paris “to hand over a whole trunkful of film material about him. An indescribable jumble – and not always usable at that, given that it was often lacking in any information about the sources of the footage – but nevertheless containing a number of treasures.

“When I left late that night, after a considerable number of vodkas…I asked him if he might…consider my making a film about him one day. ‘No, no!’ he said, ‘only after I’m dead!’”

And here is that film. In it, Rostrapovich makes it clear that, for most Soviet musicians, music was their whole world; it absorbed everything. Although this is for the most part true of all musicians in all countries, it must have been exaggerated in totalitarian states of that time such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the USSR. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had much the same experience as a young man, at least until he was drafted into the German Army, and many modern-day Chinese musicians experience the same feeling. Communist and Socialist countries are hellholes for creative artists.

I didn’t know that Rostropovich’s mother was a pianist who taught at one of the conservatories or that his father was a cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals. I was also stunned to see a clip of young Rostropovich playing, when he had hair and was actually thin. Thin, I tell you! It was also particularly interesting, for me, to see him playing Popper’s virtuosic Dance of the Elves. In this, Rostropovich held his cello in a horizontal position, playing the strings as if he were playing a piano while the bow flew across them. We also learn that, when Prokofiev heard him play his cello sonata at his conservatory concert, he went backstage and told him that he’d like to revise the work to make t more compact, and that he would appreciate the cellist’s input on this revision. When Rostropovich premiered the revised version, Prokofiev told him that he wanted him to play it with pianist Sviatoslav Richter, whom he also admired greatly—which they did in November 1949. The duo became fast friends and played together whenever they could over the course of the ensuing decades. They also used to have fun together, such as the time they went to a fancy dress party. Asked to wear something special, they put on crocodile costumes! Discussing Beethoven’s cello sonatas, the cellist was asked if he “wrote well for the cello.” His response was, “No, not well—but with genius!”

Since I am writing about Rostropovich, however, I give you a little tidbit that is not commonly known. Back in the early 1940s, he once said, he “walked miles to the nearest movie theater in the snow to see films by Deanna Durbin. I was utterly infatuated with her voice. I tried to capture the quality of her singing in my playing.” So poor Deanna, who considered most of her film career a waste of her life because she hated being the Pretty Young Singer and longed for dramatic roles, actually helped contribute something to the world of classical music, second-hand.

Richter so enjoyed Rostropovich as a recital partner that he became upset when the cellist pursued a big solo career. “He was ambitious, “ Richter groused,” and I hated that. But it was his mother who told him not to share his success.” Yet, of course, they did perform together whenever they could in later years as well. And of course, both artists LOVED being able to escape the CCCP and play in the West. “It was a breath of fresh air” was the cellist’s understatement,” and a great privilege.” But Rostropovich preceded Richter’s debut in the west; he was only the third Soviet musician to tour America, after David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels. He never suffered stage fright, he said, because he was playing “works of genius,” and these covered his own personality. He was not Mistislav Rostropovich, but Beethoven, Prokofiev etc. before the public.

We also get to see and hear Daniil Schafran, considered the “number two” Soviet cellist of the time, not well known in the West. Richter tells us that he played with him, too, and that he had a great sound, but that “Rostropovich was infinitely more interesting. Rostropovich dwarfed him.” But the two cellists respected each other.

The cellist’s wife, Galina Vishkevskaya, had a somewhat white and wiry-sounding soprano that was not much appreciated by Western ears, but she was such an expressive singer that she became famous in England and America as well. They were married four days after they met and from that point on he was her permanent accompanist at the piano, but his cello-playing schedule was so hectic that he often had to learn his parts at the last minute, just a few days before each concert.

The couple also allowed Alexandre Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, to live and stay in one of their homes rent-free. The writer survived on spaghetti for two yearswhile writing this book. They admired him because he was a Soviet dissident, and came under fire and scrutiny from the authorities because of this, but it should be remembered that Solzhenitsyn was not a lover of freedom. He only hated the Soviets because he wanted Russian to return to the era of the Czars and have a theocracy run by the Russian Orthodox Church. But the book was important and eye-opening to the West, and they did a good deed by protecting him.

But this action took its toll. He was ejected from his post at the Bolshoi and his concerts in major cities were canceled. He began drinking more heavily than was good for him. When pianist Wilhelm Kempff invited him to come and play with him and Yehudi Menuhin, the Soviet authorities told him the cellist was sick. Kempff called his home and frantically asked how his health was. When Galina told him he was fine, Kempff sent a furious telegram to Brezhnev. Menuhin also called and threatened to tell the press that the Soviets were liars. Rostropovich made a miraculous “recovery,” receiving his visa the next day, and was allowed to go to Paris to play Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. That performance is included on the DVD as a bonus feature. Yet the couple remained Soviet citizens and did not defect; they loved Russia too much. Had they defected, their careers would have blossomed even more, but they’d have been miserable though they stayed on the West for years, eventually renting an apartment in Paris in 1976. The cellist’s daughter became his accompanist. In 1978, Isvestia published an article claiming that the couple was engaged in “anti-Soviet activities” and had become “degenerates.” They were stripped of their citizenship on the grounds that their activities “are undermining the prestige of the Soviet Union.” They were devastated, but Oistrakh told them if they loved their country not to go back but just to “plant a silver birch in the garden.”

Happily, he found a real home in the West, accepted and loved not only by fellow artists but also by heads of state of several countries. His outgoing personality blossomed, and he was loved the world over. He also became a conductor in addition to being a cellist and pianist. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1990, the couple’s citizenship was restored. They were finally allowed to go home again, which they did for three miraculous days.

Over the decades, Rostropovich premiered 105 new works for cello, including 50 concerti. Among those who composed for him were Shostakovich, Dutilleux, Britten (only a sonata, not a concerto), Bernstein, Copland, Penderecki and Lutosławski. Gennady Rozhdestvensky claims that the only composer who turned him down was Stravinsky, but that may have been because Slava was still a Soviet citizen at the time and Stravinsky, who hated the regime, feared it might be used as political propaganda. Another plausible reason may have been that he was then writing in the 12-tone system and hadn’t composed a concerto of any sort for about 20 years. Not everyone was happy about this, however, Other cellists and conductors felt that most of the new music he played was inferior to the “classics,” and even Vishnevskaya said he was wasting his time “on worthless stuff, pieces he probably wouldn’t play again.” Slava’s response was that if only one out of ten of them were good, the effort was worth it, and certainly several works he commissioned have entered the standard repertoire. (As for Penderecki, I’m sorry but even his cello concerto sounds pointlessly ugly to me.) Can we imagine the world today without, say, the Dutilleux or Lutosławski concerti? I certainly can’t, and to be honest, I prefer both of them to the Dvořák Concerto. (Yes, I know, this is musical blasphemy to many, but I do like the Dvořák, I just don’t love it.)

And that’s pretty much his story.

As for the bonus features, I watched the first movement of the “Archduke” Trio and about as much as I could take of Tchaikovsky’s sappy, overly-Romantic Variations. I skipped the stuff with Solzhenitsyn’s son and daughter and Slava’s two daughters, but you might find this of interest. Overall, a very nice film to see at last once to gain the full measure of this great cellist’s career.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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God’s Tenor

Jon Vickers

Jonathan Stewart Vickers, born in 1926, was in my estimation not only one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century but one of the six most important operatic artists of that century, along with Feodor Chaliapin, Mary Garden, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Gabriel Bacquier. They brought a more realistic as well as a more poetic portrayal of operatic characters to the stage and forced audiences to think of them in a different way than just as a Presence with a Voice. Of course, there were other singers who did the same thing, among them Olive Fremstad, Michael Bohnen, Magda Olivero and Jerome Hines, but their influence was primarily local and, in the case of Fremstad, not captured properly on recordings and not at all on film.

Ironically, I didn’t like the sound of Vickers’ voice at all when I first heard him on a recording, specifically the 1961 Aida with Leontyne Price and Georg Solti. I thought the voice was basemetal and had no ring to it, and when he did try to project brightness it just sounded harsh. I was too young to know at the time that this was the result of John Culshaw’s fiddling around with dials in the control room while the recording was being made. All Culshaw really cared about was projecting the orchestra front and center; for him, voices were just “other instruments” to be subjugated behind the wall of brass, winds and strings. He pulled an even worse stunt on Vickers (and Birgit Nilsson and Gré Brouwenstijn) on their recording of Die Walküre.

My idea of Vickers changed forever in December of 1974. I had made an appointment with Francis Robinson to discuss Jussi Björling, a tenor whose voice I admired very much, for a possible biography. When an attendant arrived to take me through the labyrinth of the Met’s backstage to his office, I heard this huge, warm, absolutely luxurious voice singing music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Flabbergasted, I asked the attendant who the tenor was. I was even more flabbergasted when he told me it was Jon Vickers.

That was the beginning of my Vickers obsession. I went to see him as Don Alvaro in the February 8, 1975 performance with a stellar cast: Martina Arroyo as Leonora, Matteo Managuerra as Don Carlo, Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, the afore-mentioned Bacquier as Fra Melitone and James Levine conducting. I was utterly mesmerized, not only by Vickers’ voice but by the way he breathed life into the character. One of the most impressive moments was the duet “Solenne in quest’ora,” normally belted out by Italian tenors worldwide. Vickers wanted to convey Alvaro’s feeling that he was near death, so he sang it softly, almost in a hoarse whisper, halting for breath like someone who actually had been mortally wounded. I was stunned. But after the act, standing in the lobby, I had to listen to some idiot lecturing his circle of friends that Vickers had the “wrong voice” for Alvaro, that he preferred hearing it sung by Barry Morell. Since I couldn’t stomach Morell’s voice and had heard he was a terrible stage actor, I had a hard time believing that this guy couldn’t see and hear what I was seeing and hearing—a masterful performance.

As I was to learn, Vickers was used to this sort of thing. He knew that although his voice was massive in size, almost too massive, in fact, for most of his studio recordings, that it was not conventionally beautiful. It had warmth and was incredibly large—when he sang on stage, the voice completely filled the theater (some called it a “Cinerama” voice)—but that it didn’t have either an Italianate ring nor inherent beauty. He also used to say that 90% of all his audiences didn’t get what he was doing, but that he was singing for the 10% who did. “If I am nothing else, I consider myself an artist,” he would say, “and as an artist I try things that are different and out of the ordinary.” Yet he eventually came to realize, watching his performances on video, that in some ways it wasn’t enough. When Chicago-based critic Bruce Duffie interviewed him and asked what he thought future generations would think of his work, he said, “I think they will laugh. I think they will consider it inadequate.”

I don’t really know anyone who laughs at Jon Vickers’ performances, but I had a friend once who nitpicked him to death. “He squints too much in his Carmen film,” she said, and when she backed him up as a member of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, she laughed at the fact that when he opened his mouth to sing, “it makes a rectangular slot, like a mailbox.” That’s about as close to laughing at him I’ve ever heard.

After the Forza performance, I waited for him backstage to get his autograph, something I rarely did with opera singers, even well-known ones (as much as I liked Arroyo, I didn’t wait to get her autograph). He was one of the last to emerge from backstage. He arrived trailing James Levine and asked him, “Was I really horrible tonight? Really? I couldn’t get the voice free all night long!” To which Levine replied, “You were fine. We could all hear you very well, and most of it was excellent.” Then the tenor started talking in the third person. “When other tenors get a cold they cancel, but Vickers is an idiot. Vickers goes on anyway.” But I, and a young woman who apparently followed him around from city to city to see his performances, were enraptured by his performance and we told him so. He beamed from ear to ear. We were part of that 10% who “got it.”

The next time I heard him in person was a Carnegie Hall recital the following year. When he walked out on stage, the house erupted with applause. He beamed from ear to ear; he knew he had “a Vickers audience.” “Just for that,” he said, wagging a finger, “I’m going to start with something extra-special.” He then proceeded to sing one of his favorite arias, “Where’er you walk” from Handel’s Semele, before launching into the scheduled program, which began with Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte. From that day to this, there are few if any other performances of the Beethoven cycle I can listen to other than Vickers’. He was utterly spellbinding.

In the fall of 1977 I moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati, and thus left the New York opera scene behind, but I still followed Vickers as faithfully as I could. I heard him on a Met broadcast as Otello. I saw his astonishing performance as the clumsy, stuttering Vašek opposite Nicolai Gedda’s Jenik in The Bartered Bride. He sang and acted Gedda off the stage, probably one reason why the latter tenor never even mentioned this performance in his autobiography. I also bought his Peter Grimes recording when it came out and, a few years later, the Peter Grimes videotape. I managed to find a copy of his first (1954) recording of Handel’s Messiah with Sir Ernest Macmillan on the RCA Bluebird label. I recorded his 1984 broadcast of Fidelio with soprano Eva Marton and conductor Klaus Tennstedt. I saw him concertize on TV now and then, most notably in a stunning performance of the Act I, Scene 3 duet from Die Walküre with soprano Jessye Norman. And then, by the late 1980s, he was gone from the scene.

For a tenor who had such a long and relatively stellar career, Vickers was an odd duck, and not just because of his vocal timbre. Unlike other big-name tenors, he kept major artistic promoters at arms’ length, preferring more low-key management. He knew that the same people who loved Franco Corelli’s voice, for instance, weren’t going to like his voice no matter what he did, particularly in any sort of conventional Italian or French opera role, thus he relied as much on his reputation, which by the mid-1960s was enormous, to promote himself within the opera community. He probably did the wise thing, but this is one reason why Vickers wasn’t nearly as well known as Placido Domingo or Luciano Pavarotti. When outsiders saw him sitting in the Met cafeteria having his lunch, dressed like a Canadian lumberjack, they had no clue who he was, and he actually liked being able to have a private life without being mobbed by autograph-seekers.

And, for a tenor of such worldwide repute and fame, he really didn’t make many studio recordings. Two versions each of the Messiah, Otello, Fidelio, Die Walküre and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and one each of Aida, Samson et Dalila, Les Troyens, Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Peter Grimes, the Verdi Requiem and Das Lied von der Erde. In addition, there were three professionally produced film performances, two of them by Unitel under the guidance of Herbert von Karajan (Pagliacci and an alternate Carmen) and the filmed Peter Grimes. All of his other performances, including operas close to his heart such as Handel’s Samson and those less close such as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Un Ballo in Maschera and La Forza del Destino, Strauss’ Salome, Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, Smetana’s Barbered Bride, Cherubini’s Medea, Bellini’s Norma, Janáček’s Jenufa, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, Wagner’s Parsifal, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, exist only in live performances, as do alternate performances of Fidelio, Otello, Grimes et al. In his entire career he made only ONE vocal recital disc, for RCA Victor in 1962 (around the time of his first Otello). There also exists a strange performance of the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Center in which TWO of each voice category were used. In this performance, Vickers sang for the first and last time with American tenor Richard Tucker, and it was issued on a limited edition LP set. I haven’t been able to track it down since.

Vickers’ odd combination of confidence and modesty was drilled into him by his father, who was an itinerant preacher. A lifelong Christian who wore his morality on his sleeve, he was thus dubbed “God’s tenor.” During the 1970s he agreed to learn and sing the role of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, but backed out because he claimed that the character was blasphemous, yet he sang such equally questionable roles as Siegmund in Die Walküre, who had sexual relations with his own sister; the title role of Parsifal, a fool who becomes a sort of pseudo-Christ figure; and the bigamist emperor Nero in L’Incoronatione di Poppea. The real reason is probably that he found the tessitura of the music too high for his voice at that time.

In fact, if you examine the roles Vickers sang in the light of their psychological makeup, he was drawn to characters who had serious character flaws and heroes who were brought down by relationships they shouldn’t have had, such as Radames, Samson, Tristan, Giasone in Medea, Enée in Les Troyens, Riccardo, Herod and Cellini. In this respect he had a certain kinship with the great American actor Lon Chaney, whose goal was to humanize characters who lived on the fringes of society. For Chaney, the ultimate role was Erik in The Phantom of the Opera. For Vickers, the ultimate role was the mentally unstable, apprentice-beating fisherman Peter Grimes.

Like many singers from the early 20th century who put the dramatic or poetic presentation of the character above what was in the written score, Vickers sometimes (but not often) distorted the score in order to give one the poetic meaning of the words. To a certain extent he did this in Peter Grimes, but moreso in his broadly-phrased performance of Andrea Chenier. Perhaps the most extreme example of his was his live performance, issued on CD by VAI Audio, of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. Almost none of the songs are sung in anything like strict fidelity to the score, which is one reason no one wanted to issue it, but it certainly underlines the poetic soul of the character as well or better than anyone else’s version. At other times, such as in the Karajan film of Pagliacci, his presentation of the character seems diametrically opposed to the usual “angry clown” who explodes in angst and tears during “Vesti la giubba” and then tears passion to tatters in “No, Pagliacco non son.” Vickers internalizes the character’s angst so well that, in some respects, it seems tame to the average Italian opera fan, yet as a psychological portrayal of Canio it is extremely well-thought-out and makes sense.

When Vickers met Callas at their first rehearsal together for Medea, he was convinced that she was a shallow narcissist who didn’t care much for art because she arrived late and with an entourage, but by the end of the rehearsal period he was convinced that she was a genius. “Callas was almost masochistic in the way she approached the role,” he later said. “I found her once, late at night, kneeling onstage, psyching herself into the character, almost browbeating herself into feeling what Medea felt.” Vickers never went quite that far, but like Lon Chaney and Chaliapin, once he crossed the line onto the stage he was the character he was performing. Many were the sopranos who actually feared for their lives when he went to strangle them in the last act of Otello or who worried for his sanity in the last act of Grimes. After one Grimes rehearsal in which he sang the mad scene, “Steady! There you are! Nearly home,” he froze in position. Then, suddenly, he started laughing, softly at first and then exploding in loud guffaws. That was how quickly he could switch from the character he was playing back to Jon Vickers.

In later years he gave many lecture-concerts, explaining his aesthetic and singing examples for his audiences, and nearly all of them began with the same statement: “Art asks questions, but does not provide answers. Art challenges us to answer those questions, each in his or her own way.” That may be as good an epitaph as any for Vickers. Sadly, his last eight years were clouded by senile dementia, from which he died in July 2015.

Jon Vickers’ performances, both live and in the studio, not only deserve to be perpetuated but to be listened to carefully and studied. Like Chaliapin’s records, they present a great interpreter who made us reassess the operatic repertoire we all think we know so well.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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