Modern Choral Music by Rautavaara & Friends


TOWARDS THE LIGHT / RAUTAVAARA: Missa a cappella. Our joyful’st feast. WENNÄKOSKI: Valossa Ommel. LIVORSI: Lamenti / Helsinki Chamber Choir; Nils Schweckendiek, cond / Chronos ICSM 013

This is clearly not the kind of CD I like to review, or in fact review at all: an album of a cappella choral music, generally low-key and with religious allusions, but I generally admired the late Einojuhani Rautavaara whose works pretty much dominate this disc.

The opening Missa a cappella is typical of Rautavaara’s late period, using mixed rhythms and unusual harmonic shifts within a somewhat regular formal structure, and indeed these modern touches are what saves the music from banality. He originally planned to write his mass in the early 1970s, but it took him almost four decades to complete it: the Credo was already written. Rautavaara uses intriguing harmonic “traps” to move the key around, particularly in the Gloria, which always seems to end each chorus in a different key from where it started.

One of the things that strikes the listener, however, is that for Rautavaara the text didn’t seem to be much of a motivator in inspiring the music since it seems to have a mood of its own. True, he followed the rhythms of the Latin words, but played with them in an intriguing manner, sometimes shortening and sometimes lengthening the syllabic structure to fit the score. Only the Sanctus seems to be syllabically structured to fit the words as they would be spoken. The first tenor soloist in this, believe it or not, has a spread in his tone, so even in choral music we’re forced to put up with defective voices nowadays. He also used some nice polyphonic effects on the syllable “ah” during the Benedictus.

Next up is Valossa by the relatively young (b. 1970) Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski, whose music includes some really comical effects such as membe5rs of the chorus muttering and mumbling in the background as the others sing. Some of this goes a long way, and in this piece I felt as if Wennäkoski overdid it a bit, but it is an interesting piece in which the underlying harmonies seem to be ever-shifting using a circular chromatic pattern ã la John Coltrane.

Our joyful’st feast, set to verses by Shakespeare from Love’s Labour Lost and Hamlet plus two verses by George Wither, found Rautavaara in a playful mood, and here he wisely kept the music minimal in its use of unusual harmonies. Commissioned by this very choir, it is clearly a nice celebratory piece and not made for heavy listening, yet very uplifting to hear.

The strange-sounding Ommel returns us to the world of Wennäkoski and her swirling bitonal lines which here include some microtonal passages to make the listener pay attention. At one point, it almost sounds as if the chorus was shooting craps while they sang.

We end this recital with Lamenti by Italian composer Paula Livorsi, who wrote this piece using sad-sounding, chromatically-falling lines to emphasize the laments from Giordano Bruno and Federico Garcia Lorca. My sole complaint with this work is that it went on too long and was too repetitive.

Even so, this is surprisingly interesting music for this type of record. I highly recommend it for lovers of modern choral pieces.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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It’s Igor Shamo Time!


SHAMO: Ukrainian Suite. Pictures by Russian Painters. Vesnyanka. Classical Suite. Hutsul Aquarelles. 12 Préludes. Tarasomi dumy. Songs of Friendship. Toccata. Horovodna. Humoresque. 3 Dances. Scherzo. Fantastic March / Dimitri Tchesnokov, pno / Piano Classics PCL10152

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s time once again for the music of Igor Shamo! Who?!? Well, that was my reaction, too. It turns out that Shamo (1925-1982) was a Ukrainian composer who didn’t really get into composing until he was around 20 years old and then didn’t make it to age 60. His music was well enough received that during the 1950s he was invited to come and live in Moscow, but he was attached to the Ukraine and so wouldn’t leave it. In addition to the piano music heard here, Shamo also wrote chamber music, orchestral works and songs in addition to “slumming” in the worlds of movie and theater music. Several of these pieces are world premiere recordings while Pictures by Russian Painters and the 12 Préludes are presented here complete for the first time. Our intrepid pianist of this set, Dimitri Tchesnokov, reconstructed the 3 Dances and Fantastic March in order to create performing editions.

It’s easy to see why Shamo was popular in his time and why he was tapped to write movie music. His language was tonal, and resolutely so, although like his British counterpart York Bowen, he did use some interesting chord positions to color his music, and he had a distinct musical personality. I would say that in some ways he was a simpler, easier-to-digest version of Nikolai Medtner. And like Medtner, he informed his music with a heaping helping of Russian “soul.” His music is quite emotional, not at all cool or cerebral despite its fine construction. In this opening suite he also makes fine use of Ukrainian folk tunes as the basis for his compositions. One of the tunes in the middle of the second piece, “Vesnyanka” (not the same music as the stand-alone piece of the same name), there’s a brief snippet that almost sounds like one of the melodies from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The Pictures by Russian Painters is, according to the notes, Shamo’s most popular piano suite, yet this is its first complete recording. It has as its general inspiration the similar piano suite by Mussorgsky, but is much shorter at a little over 21 minutes. The painters referred to are Vasily Golikov, Isaac Levitan, Arkady Rylov, Mikhail Nesterov and Boris Kustodiev—all realistic or “representational” painters and thus ones who would be accepted and approved of by the Soviet regime. Despite the vast span of time between the Mussorgsky cycle and his, Shamo’s music inhabits the same harmonic world: in fact, his harmonies are a bit less unusual than Mussorgsky’s, though some of the pieces are indeed interesting.

The separate “Vesnyanka” is not, to my ears, as good as the one from the Ukrainian Suite. The Classical Suite is based on an 18th-century model with some interesting harmonic twists, i.e. in the “Minuet” and “Courante.”

Yet with Hutsul Aquarelles or Hutsulian Watercolors from 1972, we encounter a somewhat different Shamo. Though still grounded in tonality, his music here is more impressionistic and has far more interesting harmonics. It almost sounds like a combination of Medtner and Ravel,  or perhaps Medtner and Koechlin, which is fine by me. The pulse is less regular, almost amorphous, and he explores entirely new nooks and crannies that he either missed or was uninterested in exploring in his earlier works. The liner notes describe the first piece in this cycle, “Sunrise in the Mountains,” as a “free improvisation, occasionally using a dodecaphonic series and some hexaphonic chords.”


In the second piece, “Musicians ascend a mountain,” he emulates the sound of drums, violin, clarinet and the Trembita, a wind instrument similar to the Alphorn, and again there is a strong French influence, as there is in the delicate “Little Shepherd.” In “Spring Rain,” he does a remarkable job of emulating a growing rumble of thunder before the downpour. No two ways about it, this entire suite is a masterpiece.

Happily, this suite is followed by the 12 Préludes of 1962, which are also excellent. Organized by following the cycle of fifths, it oddly stops halfway through, leaving one to think there would be another 12 preludes to complete it, yet the composer’s daughter explains that it was conceived this way. Unusually, the first prelude in C almost has a slight jazz swagger about it; perhaps Shamo was influenced to some extent by the activities around this time of the younger Nikolai Kapustin, who was playing with jazz orchestras? Once again, Shamo’s essentially Slavic expression is tempered by French harmonies, though not quite to the extent of the Hutsul Aquarelles. Somehow, Shamo managed to make the Prelude No. 3, assigned to G major, almost sound like the minor by use of unusual chord positions and a swirling moto perpetuo that rarely if ever lands on the tonic. Moreover, these preludes have tremendous energy about them which helps hold the listener’s interest. In the sixth prelude, written in b minor, Shamo uses a continuous cascade of notes played by the right hand or perhaps even both hands, since he eliminates the bass line entirely in this piece. But the entire cycle is interesting; there’s so much going on in this music, some of it on a very subtle level, that you need to keep paying attention even when the music sounds quiet and uneventful, as in the very slow Prelude No, 8 in f# minor.

The third and last CD opens with the Tarasovi Dumy, a collection of pieces inspired by the Kobzar of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukraine’s greatest poet and writer. This music, too, is atmospheric and harmonically interesting; as the booklet description of the opening number, “My thought, my thoughts…” puts it, “An inner world, where nothing is spoken but all is being suggested.” Some of the later pieces in this suite are more outward-looking, yet one continues to feel as if Shamo were writing from an inspiration deep within.

The Songs of Friendship, composed in 1954, revert back to Shamo’s simpler style, atmospheric but harmonically simpler and based on folks songs. The first is Czech, the second Polish and the third Romanian. Interestingly, the stand-alone Toccata from 1952 also has a Romanian feel to it and Horovodna also has Eastern European folk music allusions.

Not too surprisingly the 3 Dances, being from 1972, have a few more interesting harmonies (mostly modal) mixed in with their folk style, which in this case are Uzbek, Azerbaijani and Armenian. The undated Scherzo is a cute piece, nothing much to write home about, while the concluding Fantastic March from 1946 (possibly his first work, certainly the one that gained him acceptance into the Kyiv Conservatoire) is a very imaginative piece for its time period, quite bitonal in places.

My overall impression, then, is of a composer heavily influenced by folk music of his own region and those surrounding him (Russian, Czech, Polish) as well as by Medtner and the French impressionists who grew as a composer during the 1960s and ‘70s, which is when most of his really interesting pieces were composed. In all of them, however, Dimitri Tchesnokov plays with both sensitivity and vigor, providing us with about as good an idea of Shamo’s work as we could possibly hope for. Five fish, then, for the performances, but only four for the material because of some of the less interesting works on these three CDs.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays Tansman

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TANSMAN: 11 Interludes. Hommage à Arthur Rubinstein. 2 Pièces Hébraïques. 4 Piano Moods. Prélude et Toccata. 6 Caprices: I-V. Visit to Israel. Étude / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP788

The wonderful Hungarian pianist Giorgio Koukl, whose work I’ve reviewed several times previously, gives us here a most unusual disc of piano music by the Polish-cum-Parisian composer Alexandre Tansman. Whereas most of the previous releases I’ve seen of his music focuses on works from the late 1920s through the early 1940s, the earliest works on the present CD start from the ‘40s (the Caprices of 1941 and the Prélude et Toccata and 4 Piano Moods from 1943-44), with the remainder dating from 1955 to 1973. All are first recordings.

Tansman’s grasp of modern harmony had clearly grown by 1955, when the 11 Interludes were written. Whereas before he used such moments somewhat sparingly, by this time they were a continuous underpinning of his work, ranging from bitonal to amorphous depending on the piece in question. The third interlude is a perfect example, beginning with a series of crushed chords that somehow interlock yet remain chromatic in movement. In the seventh interlude, marked “Allegro con molto,” the feeling is anything but Allegro; it’s more like an elusive, mysterious-sounding medium-tempo piece played at a very soft volume level.

Moreover, this strange harmonic world is also present in the 1973 two-part homage to pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who so far as I know never played a modern piece of music in his life. Undoubtedly the “homage” was simply to the fact that he was a Jewish Pole like Tansman, and one of the most famous of them at that.

In his later years Tansman turned to his Jewish heritage, using Hebrew musical themes more frequently, and both the 2 Pièces Hébraïques and the nine-part Visit to Israel are part of that facet of his output—yet the harmonic and melodic approach to composition scarcely changed from his non-Jewish works. Personally, I found the 2 Pièces Hébraïques rather dull music, static in both its harmonic movement and lack of any forward momentum. The Piano Moods follow much the same pattern, at least until you reach No. 4, “Allegro meccanico,” which is propelled by a strong, fast ostinato rhythm.

Using a similar approach to harmony and rhythm, the Prélude et Toccata fools the listener by disguising the form; this is a very imaginative piece. So too are the Caprices from 1941, but unfortunately Tansman never completed No. 6 so it couldn’t be included in this recital. No. 4, marked “Molto vivace,” is especially interesting in its use of fast sprinkles of eighth notes in the piano’s upper register.

The music for Visit to Israel is based even more clearly on Hebraic themes and modes, and here Tansman really let his imagination play with the music, producing engaging, unusual pieces. The suite ends with a very peppy “Hora.” The recital ends with the slow, enigmatic Étude from 1967.

Taken as individual pieces (or small groups as put together by Tansman), the music on this disc can be very interesting in recital, surrounded by other music. I think the decision to group them all together in this way, however, was not conducive to a full appreciation of most of them as the moods of all of them tended (with some exceptions) to sound alike and run together in the listener’s mind. Otherwise, a fine release.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Davidson & Fortin Invest in a “Clock Radio”

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CLOCK RADIO / DAVIDSON: tür. berlin V. berlin I. zwei werden eins. berlin IV. berlin VII. H moll (zeitweisse). out of love. spiegeln. berlin VI. delicate. into a fog. a lift above. doorway / Michael Davidson, vib; Dan Fortin, bs / Elastic Recordings ER 001

Dan Fortin, the bassist of the Canadian jazz group Myriad3, and vibist Michael Davidson have combined forces here—although, in an album of such quiet, almost sub-toned dimensions, “forces” scarcely seems the right word—for a program of very intimate, almost subliminal music-making.

Scheduled for release on March 22, Clock Radio is a collection of 14 pieces that can be enjoyed separately or as a continuous suite. The musical themes recur throughout, creating (purposely) a feeling of déjà vu. The pieces are meant to be “nostalgic,” but nostalgic scarcely describes what is going on here. In fact, I personally wouldn’t call it nostalgic since it evoked no such feelings in me. It’s more like a trip down Alice’s rabbit-hole but without the little signs saying “Drink Me” or “Eat Me” to help you along,

The subtle swing created by the duo reminded me of some of the things Red Norvo did in the 1930s and ‘40s (Lester Young is often credited as being the father of cool jazz, but one should also include Norvo in the same breath), except that the harmonies are even more modern and both themes and tempi continually change, sometimes interlocking and sometimes juxtaposing against each other. All 14 pieces are credited to Davidson as composer, thus one would assume that much of this music is written out, but more often than not the listener may be forgiven for confusing the improvised sections with the through-composed. When the participating musicians are on this high of a level, it’s difficult to draw the line between these two facets, although the longer solos are most certainly improvised.

What impressed me was the fact that neither Davidson nor Fortin are “flashy” players, at least not on this session (a rare exception is one of Davidson’s solos on berlin I), but rather sublimate their playing in the service of the music. As I was streaming these tracks on my computer for review, without carefully watching the screen, I found it difficult to tell where one piece ended and another began much of the time. I have to think that the titles of these pieces were pretty much arbitrary choices since they just seem to be whimsical and not particularly descriptive in any way.

Any attempt at a technical description of each piece herein would be difficult since it is so amorphous in form. I would, however, point out that it is mostly tonal or at least modal; harmonically, at least, it does not push many barriers, but the odd form of each piece and the occasional odd effects (such as the distant-sounding reverb at the end of zwei werden eins) bring the listener into the creative process in a way. The piece titled berlin IV is the most regular in jazz pulse and maintains a fairly steady tempo throughout, yet still fits into the evolving suite. berlin VII starts out with something I generally detest, electronic sounds, but thankfully they’re just used as an introduction and interlude for this happy, uptempo but bitonal swinger. Towards the end one hears the crackle of what could be an old LP record (probably a bit of “nostalgia” though I have no such feelings for LPs myself).  out of love also opens with electronic sounds, but mellower, long-held notes to create a warm ambience over which Davidson plays, eventually joined by Fortin. In berlin VI, Fortin sustains long bowed (arco) notes while Davidson seems to be creating alternating slow and fast upper lines throughout.

And that’s about as much of a description as I can give you without spoiling the listening experience. You just have to hear Clock Radio for yourself, enjoy it and absorb it. It’s a simply wonderful album from start to finish.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Wilson Plays 20th-Century Flute Concerti

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FRANÇAIX: Impromptu for Flute & Strings. RIVIER: Concerto for Flute & Strings. DAMASE: Sérénade for Flute & Strings. IBERT: Concerto for Flute & Orchestra / Ransom Wilson, fl; BBC Concert Orch.; Perry So, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6375

This is a surprisingly charming disc of French 20th-century flute concerti played by flautist Ransom Wilson, whose photo in the booklet looks anything but charming (he looks like a grizzled old prospector), with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Perry So. The program is bookended by two of the most famous French composers of the last century, Jean Françaix and Jacques Ibert.  In between we have works by two composers I was not familiar with, Jean Rivier (1896-1987), a member of the “Triton Group” in the 1930s, and Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), who studied piano with Alfred Cortot before moving on to composition, winning the politically-influenced Prix de Rome (the number of great composers denied it is far larger than the piddling few who won it) in 1947.

Françaix’s Impromptu for Flute & Strings is a lightweight work, yet a well-written one which gives the impression that the flute is dancing above the strings for the entirety of its duration. Slight though it is, it does include a skittering solo cadenza near the end of the fast third movement, unexpectedly closing out with an “Andante poetico” movement.

The Rivier concerto is a considerably meatier piece with “rotating” chromatics underlying its harmonic base, yet exudes charm in its own way. At 1:20 into the first movement, we suddenly shift gears from the quite serious introduction to a perky theme with skittering strings complementing the flute. Wilson plays all of this with a lovely tone and fine technique if perhaps not much range of dynamics or inflections. After a quite serious “Lento sensibile,” we end with a bright, perky “Molto vivace” full of bouncing syncopations.

Damase’s Sérénade for Flute & Strings, written in 1956 (the same year as the Rivier concerto), also starts out in a somewhat serious vein with the violas and cellos playing a sort of irregular ostinato rhythm at a medium tempo under the flute, after which the tempo doubles and we hear pizzicato strings behind the now-quite-active flute line. In the second movement, however, one’s interest wanes as the music becomes sappy, using conventional harmonies and uninteresting themes. Damase redeems himself somewhat in the third movement, where the harmonies become more interesting and the flute’s top lines are rather more inventive.

Ibert’s flute concerto is both peppy and modernistic at the same time, sort of a cousin to Shostakovich’s very popular piano concerti. The flute line remains melodic and basically tonal above an orchestral scoring that includes quite a few altered chord positions, which keep the listener on his or her toes. Wilson sounds particularly good in this piece and the BBC Concert Orchestra also plays with a great deal of brio. This cat-and-mouse game with harmony, allied to a somewhat vigorous rhythmic base, continues throughout the concerto.

In all, then, a well-played program weakened somewhat by the “classical music radio” quality of the Françaix and Damase works…but guess which ones you’ll hear on the air? No points for the correct guess!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Danowicz & the Atom String Quartet Return


MADE IN POLAND / LUBOWICZ: Ballad on the Death of Janosik. SZYMANOWSKI-TOGNETTI: String Quartet No. 2, arr. for String Orchestra. SZYMANOWSKI-KOCHAŃSKI: Harnasie: Highlander Dance.* LENCZOWSKI: Iława for Improvising Quartet & String Orchestra. Namyslowiak. BACEWICZ: Concerto for Strings. M. GÓRECKI: Concerto-Notturno for Violin & String Orchestra* / Atom String Qrt; NFM Leopoldinum Chamber Orch.; Christian Danowicz, *vln/cond / Dux 1298

This CD seems to be not merely a follow-up to the superb Dux release Supernova, which I reviewed earlier this month, but in fact a sister-disc that could have been issued with the former as a 2-CD set. The one difference is that Supernova featured only one work by a composer not affiliated with the Atom String Quartet, that being Hanna Kulenty-Majoor’s Concerto Rosso, while here we have no less than four works by other, well-respected Polish composers: two by Karol Szymanowski and one each by Grażyna Bacewicz and Mikołaj Górecki (the only one of these composers who is still with us). Yet the feeling and drive of all of these performances are driven not only by the quartet, which takes part in three of the seven works presented here, but also by conductor Christian Danowicz who led the same orchestra on Supernova.

Indeed, with Dawid Lubowicz’ Ballad on the Death of Janosik, with its driving, almost fusion-like rhythms, we seem to be smack in the midst of the Supernova CD once again. Despite the scoring for the full string section, it is the Atom String Quartet which again takes center stage, playing with their customary drive and inventiveness. If anything, the Atom Quartet plays with even more energy than their American counterparts. My sole complaint of the piece was that the themes sounded too much like “movie music” to me.

Next, however, are the two Szymanowski works. Although I am no fan of string quartets or other chamber pieces arranged for full orchestra, this one works fairly well, in part because the arranger (identified as Richard Tognetti) kept all of Szymanowski’s intricate interplay of the quartet in moving it over to a full string orchestra as well as emulating the composer’s textures that he used in his symphonies. This is followed by the Highlander Dance from Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie in an arrangement by conductor Christian Danowicz, who also plays the violin solos here.

Krzysztof Lenczowski’s Ilawa for Improvising String Quartet & String Orchestra is a sad elegy, very tonal and, for my taste, a bit too sentimental, but it is played well. Bacewicz’ Concerto for String Orchestra is a more vigorous piece and well-constructed, but its themes are relatively tame and, to my ears, uninteresting until the last movement, which is a peppy Vivo using some interesting, skittering figures for the strings.

I liked Lenczowski’s second piece, Namyslowiak, much better than the first. The tempo is up, the rhythms are irregular, and the Atom String Quartet really goes to town on it. This one is a real gem; around 5:38, the rhythm changes to a sort of one-legged polka. In a really strange change of musical scene, we end with the slow, somewhat mystical music of Górecki—not the famous Henryk, who died in 2010, but his son Mikołaj. He shares with his father a penchant for creating slow-moving pieces in a resolutely tonal style. The first movement of the Concerto-Notturno is a bit on the sentimental side, which I didn’t much care for, but the second is energetic and interesting and the finale, though marked “Molto lento,” is a far more interesting piece than the first movement.

A somewhat mixed bag, then; some pieces quite interesting, some a bit edgy, and a couple of sentimental tunes.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Inga Fiolia Plays Tsintsadze Preludes

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WP 2019 - 2TSINTSADZE: 24 Préludes for Piano / Inga Fiolia, pno / Grand Piano GP783

Sulkhan Fyodorovitch Tsintsadze (1925-1991) was one of the finest Georgian composers of his time but, like so many such artists, his work is scarcely known in the West. Here, pianist Inga Fiolia plays his remarkable set of 24 Preludes for piano, which were written in 1971.

Like so many Eastern European composers, Tsintsadze leaned on his native folk music as a basis for his work but intermixed this with modern harmonies that leaned towards atonality but were not 12-tone or atonal. As one can hear in the second Prelude, he could also create great atmosphere in his music, and he had an excellent grasp of form and development. Many of the preludes are short, ranging from 57 seconds (the first) to under two minutes, but eight of them range from about 2 ½ to roughly three minutes. Several of the faster preludes, such as No. 3, use strong motor rhythms with the left hand playing complex yet driving eighth-note patterns that scamper through harmonic traps while propelling the right-hand figures.

Fiolia’s strong, often driving keyboard style suits these works perfectly, thus giving the listener a very good impression of their essential character and style. She has wonderful keyboard articulation (meaning that she separates the notes cleanly and does not make them sound like a jumble of sound) and can switch in a heartbeat from a driving style to soft, but not mawkish, phrasing when the music calls for it. In the ninth prelude, Fiolia even gives the music a little bit of a boogie-woogie feel to the rhythm, which is not at all inappropriate. Strong motor rhythms, and a bit of jazz flavor, also propel the Prelude No. 21 in Bb minor.

As s set, these Preludes sound almost like etudes if you know what I mean. In fact, sometimes I wonder what the hell composers mean by the terms “prelude” or “etude” anyway, since most of the music contained in such sets tend to be abstract but dense pieces that have very little relationship to one another. It’s kind of like those “24 Hour Cleaners” shops I used to see as a child. “It’s just the name of the store; we can’t really clean all your clothes in 24 hours.”

Anyway, this is clearly a major find, not only in Fiolia’s pianism but in the quality of the music as well. Check it out!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Hannu Lintu Conducts Zimmermann

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ZIMMERMANN: Violin Concerto.* Photoptosis. Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony+ / *Leila Josefowicz, vln; +Anu Komsi, sop; +Jeni Packalen, alto; +Hilary Summers, mezzo; +Peter Tantsits, ten; +Ville Rusanen, bar; +Juha Uusitalo, bass; Finnish Radio Symphony Orch.; Hannu Lintu, cond / Ondine ODE 1325-2

For a large number of classical listeners, Bernd Alois Zimmermann is forever identified by just one work, his complex atonal opera Die Soldaten—which they hate, and therefore write him off as a terrible composer. One friend of mine even had the audacity to claim that the failure of Die Soldaten was the reason he committed suicide in 1970 (it wasn’t). Yet much of his other music, although clearly modern and often atonal, was not as purposely abrasive as Die Soldaten, which, incidentally, I happen to think is a masterpiece.

As it turns out, the Violin Concerto is a work that lies somewhere between the astringent serialism of Die Soldaten and the modern but not serial content of some of his other works. There are, for instance, forward-moving motor rhythms, particularly in the first movement, and despite the timpani thumps and abrasive brass interjections, there is a discernible and developing (albeit atonal) melodic line. In some passages, Zimmermann even used what sounds to me like Eastern European folk music bordering on klezmer for one of his themes. Written in 1950, seven years before he started work on Die Soldaten, this concerto pushes old and new forms together. In the second-movement “Fantasia,” he recycles the recitative accompagnato form but recasts it in modern harmonies. The liner notes make the whimsical comment that “In its magical writing for celesta, it sounds as if the Prokofiev of Cinderella has taken a trip.” Perhaps an LSD trip but, with its generous amount of dodecaphony, a bad one. There is a decided feeling of despair and resignation in this music, although (as at the 4:40 mark in this movement) Zimmermann tries to lighten the mood with less dark melodic lines. In the last movement Zimmermann again uses driving rhythms, but here sounds much more like Berg or Schoenberg—and yet it has a traditional cadenza for the soloist just before the finish.

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Yves Klein, “Schwammrelief”

Photoptosis (1968) was commissioned to honor the 100th anniversary of the Gelsenkirchen town bank, inspired by Yves Klein’s painting of the of the town’s Musiktheater im Revier. It was premiered the following year, and is one of Zimmermann’s most complex scores, oscillating around the semitone of D-Eb. To my ears, it also has the drone of a didgeridoo in the bass line, and Zimmermann’s scoring creates a “metallic” sound that is very machine-age in texture. You might call this a musical paean to the banking-industrial complex.  And a lot of fun it is (not!); it is a grim, in-your-face piece, but once again a sort of cosmic overload…at the seven-minute mark, we suddenly hear an snippet from the first movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, and there are other small quotes and allusions to other older music that follow.

But if Photoptosis wasn’t musically strange enough for you, we conclude our program with the 42-minute “Vocal Symphony” that Zimmermann created from his fascinating but strange masterpiece, Die Soldaten. It has all the menace and unease of the complete opera, but lasts much shorter. In this, conductor Hannu Lintu is joined by the remarkable soprano Anu Komsi, contralto Jeni Packalen, mezzo Hilary Summers, tenor Peter Tantsits (whose voice is, alas, tight and dry) and baritone Juha Uusitalo (who as an unsteady flutter). I tell you, though, you can’t beat those old songs from the ‘50s for fun, can you?

This is a good introduction to Zimmermann for listeners who don’t know much about his work. If you can at least come halfway towards him, you’ll appreciate the brilliance of what he did even if you still find the music abrasive.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Thompson’s Opera “The Mask in the Mirror” Issued


WP 2019 - 2THOMPSON: The Mask in the Mirror / Cameo Humes, ten (Paul/Narrator); Angela L. Owens, sop (Alice); John Burt Polhamus, bar (Dean Howells); Leberta Lorál, sop (Victoria, Paul’s Friend/Woman in Bar); Lindsay Patterson Abdou, mezzo (Patsy/Mathilde/Mrs. Lyons/Leila, Alice’s Sister); Natalie Mann, sop (Sarah); Roland Mills, ten (Sales Rep/Drinking Buddy); Richard Thompson, pno; The Sanaa Opera Project; Stephen Tucker, cond / Navona NV6209

This three-act opera, premiered in 2012 by Trilogy Opera in Newark, New Jersey, is based on the life and career of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first nationally recognized and published black poet. Dunbar, whose parents had been slaves, wrote many of his poems in the “Negro dialect” of the old South in addition to writing other poems and novels in conventional English. He died from the fatal combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism at the age of 33, in 1906.

Black British composer Richard Thompson has taken as the focus of this opera the conflict between Dunbar’s desire to marry a biracial woman, Alice Ruth Moore, who was also a poet and writer. The match would seem to have been ideal, but he faced strong opposition from both his mother to marrying someone who was half-white and her mother for marrying a man “who drinks and courts many women…in a tongue betrayed by liquor.” Dunbar married her secretly anyway, but continued to be hounded for it. It’s a sad story under any circumstances, but doubly so because, for many African-Americans, Dunbar’s surprise success in the white publishing world was a source of pride. Of course, tuberculosis was the primary cause of death and undoubtedly would have happened without the other stressors in his life, but these internal conflicts surely didn’t help and increased his drinking.

And it was true that he was always susceptible to flattery from intelligent women who understood what he was doing. While in London, and already smitten by Alice, a lady admirer named Sarah praises him for his “passion” and his voice “which touches my soul,” to which he instinctively replies, “Yes, I do also…My poetry is a path to your heart, a path I would tread so happily.” Short memory there, Paul, wouldn’t you say?

In a sense, I’m glad to see this opera recorded and distributed on CD because works of this sort have a history of being marginalized and ignored, even in these more enlightened times, by the classical music establishment. I was fortunate to see the Cincinnati production of Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner, based on the short story Beloved by Toni Morrison who also wrote the libretto. This was based on the true story of a female slave who worked “in the house” of a wealthy Kentucky slave owner but was also married to Robert Garner and had children by him. Escaping to freedom, the Garners were hunted down like animals and Robert was recaptured into slavery. Refusing to let her children also be captured and grow up as slaves, Margaret killed them just before the hunters broke into her hiding place. The opera was an extremely good one; I taped the radio broadcast of the performance and still have it in my collection; but after a short run in three American opera houses (Chicago, Cincinnati and Philadelphia), the opera died an unnatural death and has never been recorded or, to my knowledge, performed ever again. The plot and the characters were just too sensitive and close to the truth for many members of its white audience to acknowledge.

One of the real tragedies of Dunbar’s story was that, in a sense, it was more the internal family conflicts that led to his alcoholism and the tuberculosis that hastened his early death than the kind of ugly laws and norms that afflicted Margaret Garner. If anything, Dunbar’s success in the white publishing world of his time, though he had to compromise by writing several poems in dialect, was a breakthrough of enormous proportions, but because of this his work was forgotten and marginalized once the more famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance came along in the 1920s. That, too, is part of the tragedy of his short life.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that most of the cast members of The Mask in the Mirror had really fine voices, not only tonally attractive but lacking the flutters and wobbles I’ve complained of in any number of modern recordings of other operas old and new, as well as very clear diction (something their more famous operatic brothers and sisters often don’t have). But ignoring for the moment the white singers in the cast (good as they are) I have to say this, that nearly all these singers are worthy of much more widespread success in the mainstream opera world as well, and this is still, to me, a modern tragedy that seems to have no end. If you’re a great black opera singer and your name doesn’t happen to be Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo or Shirley Verrett, your career isn’t going to go very far. Even during the Price-Arroyo-Verrett era, there were several other outstanding African-American singers who either had much smaller careers or didn’t make it at all. Kathleen Battle had a breakthrough in the 1980s and early ‘90s, but there were others during her era who also deserved a big break and didn’t get it. Soprano Leona Mitchell had a pretty good Met career but was never quite as big a name internationally.  Nowadays, it seems as if Lawrence Brownlee and Daniele De Niese are the only black artists with really big international careers. Of the Margaret Garner cast, only mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, whose voice sadly collapsed not too long after her participation in these performances, had such a stature. Soprano Angela K. Brown, who did sing a few Aidas at the Metropolitan Opera around the time of Margaret Garner, had an outstanding large lyric soprano voice but didn’t make records or become internationally known. Gregg Baker, who played Robert Garner, was one of the most exceptional dramatic baritones I’ve ever heard in my life (in addition to being a physical marvel and very sexy-looking), yet except for an Amonasro here and there mostly sang the stereotypical black baritone role of Porgy in Gershwin’s trashy little opera.

Thompson’s work, being a chamber opera, by necessity features a scaled-down orchestra and, in fact, he himself plays the piano in the Prologue. Cameo Humes, an excellent light lyric tenor, sings both Dunbar and the narrator. Interestingly, in Paul’s first entrance Humes does a parlando reading of one of Dunbar’s dialect poems:

G’way an’quit dat noise, Miss Lucy –
Put that music book away;
What’s de use to keep on tryin’?
Ef you practice ‘twell you’re gray,
You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’
Lak de ones dat rants and rings,
F’om de kitchen to the big woods
When Malindy sings.

You ain’t got the nachel o’gans
Fu’ to make be soun’ come right,
You ain’t got the tu’ns an’ twistin’s
Fu’ to make it sweet and light.

Tell you one thing now, Miss Lucy,
An’ I’m tellin’ you fu’ true,
When hit comes to raal right singin’
‘Tain’t no easy thing to do.

Later in the first act, Paul has this to say in a spoken interlude:

I write English as well as any man! As well as any man! Am I to write only dialect poetry? Never! I will not be denied the recognition I deserve. I will gain my rightful place in the world of literature.

In a letter to his publisher, Dean Howells, Dunbar wrote:

Let the world praise my poetry in a broken tongue
While my deepest thoughts are dismissed…
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile,
With torn and bleeding hearts, we smile

This parlando style continues throughout the opera, interspersed with sung passages in what I would call melodic recitative. This is a popular and accepted form of modern operatic writing, and in a work like this it was a good idea. The scoring is exceptionally light, sounding for the most part like a 30-piece orchestra at most, and Thomson clearly knows how to develop his musical themes. In fact, one of the real joys of listening to The Mask in the Mirror is its structural integrity. It almost sounds like a dramatic cantata if you know what I mean, but in a very good sense. One’s interest never flags because the music is so well written. It is mostly tonal, and the sung lines very grateful to the ear despite the lack of real arias and duets, with more advanced harmonies occasionally injected into the orchestral writing.

There is yet another thing I liked about it, and that is, despite the more modern harmonic leanings of the score it is orchestrated in a way that mirrors early turn-of-the-century concert and vaudeville music (think of some of these modern ragtime orchestras you hear nowadays or, if your memory goes back far enough, Scott Joplin’s rags from The Red Back Book as recorded by Gunther Schuller in the 1970s.)

Indeed, the overriding feeling I got from Thompson’s score is best described as touching. It is very tender music but, thank goodness, free of sentimentality or bathos. I was deeply appreciative to him for this, and despite its continuous quality there is so much rhythmic and harmonic subtlety in it that I found myself continually interested. It’s music that “grows” on you; it might almost be described as poetry in sound.

Despite the compact nature of the scenes and Thompson’s interspersing of Dunbar’s writings and poetry with his own libretto, events sometimes develop slowly. For instance, it’s not until Act 1, Scene 3 that Paul actually meets Alice, who he has been corresponding with for some time, at the home of his friend Victoria. Told by Paul that the passion he feels for Alice is real, Victoria responds, “The passion you feel is for your work and, perhaps, for your mother. No flesh and blood woman could ever take poetry’s place!”

At the start of Act II, Dunbar recites what is possibly his most famous poem:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

And, after he reads another of his dialect poems:

All they want to hear is dialect, dialect!
I wish I had never written those damn things.
They are strangling me!

Although this is a chamber opera it is not a very short one, but runs about two hours. In performance, with two intermissions, it takes up a full evening. In the Harlem bar scene, Thompson writes in a sort of modified ragtime style, using the rhythm of that music but much more modern harmonies, with a bassoon happily burping a syncopated figure in the background. A bit later in the same scene, Thompson himself plays a rag with similarly modern (but not atonal) chords which I really liked as an interlude. When the “drinking buddy” sings, the orchestra shifts to a swing beat—anachronistic, but interesting—for a brief period before returning to ragtime, this time modified with a looser, more swinging beat. Paul, his drinking buddy and an unidentified woman then sing the one real “song” in the opera, a little tune called “Jump back, honey, jump back.”

Paul’s growing alcoholism interfered with both his poetry career and his relationship with Alice. He used his father’s similar proclivities as an excuse for his own; she reminded him that his father was not a great and famous poet as he was. One of the few rhythmic scenes in the opera occurs in Act III, Scene 2. Eventually Alice leaves Paul after he comes home from a multi-day drinking spree, worse than usual, and writes to her mother about it. The implication of the opera is that Paul’s inability to be accepted for his non-dialect writing was the primary source of his drinking, but having been personally familiar with alcoholics I can tell you that most of them look for a reason to justify their addiction and many, unfortunately, never stop. Alice made him decide between her and the bottle; she surely could have given him the deep emotional support he needed, but he still chose the bottle. Tragic, to be sure, but his TB would have doomed him anyway. The alcohol hastened his demise but did not cause it. The opera ends with the couple still separated, Paul writing her a letter explaining his loneliness and inability to cope with the relationship.

The Mask in the Mirror, like Dunbar’s life, is moving, subtle, and sad. It is more a revelation of what might have been had he not had TB or been addicted to alcohol, but unfortunately great writers, composers, artists and poets are flesh and blood and thus subject to the ravages of time, illness and addictions like any other segment of society, and some never manage to escape the prison of their physical or psychological ailments. By and large, this is a wonderful opera, artfully written and, for what I can gather without having seen a production, theatrically skillful, blending facts with imagination. It is almost like a dream image of Dunbar’s life, told in short scenes that add up to personal sadness, alienation, separation and death. I was very much moved by it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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How Records Are Made (in 1942)


RCA Victor promotional film, narrated by Milton Cross:

This is an article just for fun, for your amusement as well as your edification. Heaven knows I was certainly edified.

I saw this film on YouTube (here’s the link). You can watch it yourself if you like, but I think my blow-by-blow description is a lot funnier. And truer to real life.

I tell you…this process was so clumsy, complex and convoluted that it would have been better if some Joe Blow using a portable Presto recorder made his one-step, direct-to-acetate-disc recording out there in the field.

Here are the steps they used (and I’m not exaggerating any of them, although my comments follow Cross’s descriptions):

Milton Cross: “The first step, I learned, is to pour a thin layer of molten wax onto a hot plate…the beginning of the master record. A hot flame melts all bubbles and flaws out of the wax, which is of the purest possible grade. [It looks like molasses poured on a turntable.] This is done in a sealed, dustproof and air-conditioned room where the temperature is thermostatically controlled. A second going-over with the flame, and the wax is ready for slow and careful cooling…almost ready for the recording of the music.

“Meticulous examination ensures smooth perfection before the wax is passed through a Special Slot [yes, folks, they had Special Slots in Camden in those days] to the recording room. The perfect wax is put on the turntable, a cutting point called a stylus is adjusted, and everything is ready to record…”

Oh, boy, oh, joy! And who might be recording today? Larry Tibbett? Artie Toscanini? Vlad “the Impaler” Horowitz? Why, no…it’s Chuckie O’Connell and a pick-up band of musical losers playing the well-known Blue Danube Waltz! What a magnificent performance to preserve forever and ever, huh?

But there’s MORE! Yes, there is! Once the record is finished…

Cross: “The soft disc is washed with nitrogen and put into a chamber with a block of pure gold!”


“A 2500-volt electrical current bombards atoms of gold onto the wax, coating it completely. The gold-covered disc is put into a solution of copper sulfate, through which a powerful electrical current runs, transferring molecules of copper from the solution to the record. As a result of this process, called electrolysis, the disc comes out plated with copper…immortal music written in metal!”

And that’s how copies are pressed. Right?

Wrong!! Uncle Miltie and RCA have a lot more steps to go through! Shall we dance…?

Cross: “In a second bath, the copper coating is further built up. In these baths, electricity flows through the solution between two poles: one a block of copper, and the other the disc itself. As the current passes from the copper into the solution, it carries with it charged molecules of metal called ions which are drawn to the disc and penetrate its tiniest recesses, taking the exact shape of the grooves made by the original sound vibrations, ensuring perfect fidelity of tone in the final record.”

And yes, there’s more!

Cross: “From this furiously bubbling cauldron comes the master record. After the copper has taken the impression, the wax may be stripped away. This master matrix could then be used to press the final records, I was told, but it would not last long enough to turn out the millions of discs music lovers demand.”

(I wanna see the “millions of music lovers” just standing in line to buy Chuckie O’Connell’s routine rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz.)

“Hence another disc, called the ‘mother matrix,’ must be made first; and from that, stampers will be made to press the final records.

“When the master is finally stripped, the last traces of wax are washed away. The master matrix is carefully rinsed and scrubbed. Then it’s given another electrolytic bath, this time of nickel which, I learned, gives it a still harder outer coating.”

And now we’re ready to press records. Right? Ummm….wrong.

“After this bath, the master is washed and dipped into a special solution that coats it with a fine film. Now, into another copper bath!”

Jesus Christmas!! How many copper baths does it have to go through?

“And this time the mother matrix starts to build up on the face of the master, taking the shape of the same grooves, capturing again the sweet tones of this crappy waltz.” (No, he didn’t really say crappy waltz. I said it for him.)

“The double disc is now separated into mother and master, and the master matrix goes down to the treasure-house of music to be preserved for all time, to take its place besides the works of the world’s greatest artists. [Chuckie O’Connell?? Who knew?] The mother matrix is thoroughly washed and cleaned, and goes into a nickel bath to give it a more durable surface.”

Sounds to me like it takes more time to produce the damn master than to cut the freaking record.

“After another washing and film coating, it goes into another copper bath where the ‘stamping matrix’ starts to build up. The double disc bubbles in its bath until the tiny electrified particles of copper grow into a hard, strong coating and the plating is finished.”

Finished! Yaaayyy! At last! Or…is it??

“Now the mother matrix and stamper, locked face to face, are separated. From the mother additional stampers will be made so that many finished records may be pressed at one time.”

Okay, NOW we’re ready to roll. Right, Milton?

“Before the stamper is ready to use, it receives a nickel plating and then another coat, this time of hard, gleaming chromium, to give it resistance enough to last through many pressings!”

All this to press a goddamn shellac record that will break the first time you drop it, right?

“The matrix is washed once more, and now with other stampers, it will soon be ready to press the finished records. For still greater strength, the completed matrix is soldered to a rigid backing. For perfect contact with the hot backing, the stamper is heated with flame, protected with a chemically neutral blanket and pressed evenly into the hot solder.”

OK, good. NOW we’re ready to press some records, right?

“When the gleaming disc is removed from the press, it is ready for the next operation: the centering of the hole around which the finished record will revolve.”

Oh, yeah…forgot about the hole. Sorry ‘bout that,

“This delicate mechanism centers the hole with meticulous precision, and is checked by magnification. Looking through the magnifier, I saw the rotating grooves of the music itself, caught on the record.”

Well, good for you, Miltie.

“The technician checks again, then drills the hole with perfect accuracy on dead center.”

So why were so many RCA records pressed off-center? Was the meticulous precision-checker overtired or drunk?

“Now the stamper is given a last washing (ANOTHER one??) so that no speck of dust could make even the tiniest mark that would create the smallest false sound. On this revolving cleaning machine, I saw the disc receive its final polishing.”

OK, so NOW we’re READY TO MAKE RECORDS, right, right???? Right????

NO! “Before going to the actual pressing of records, I was shown the mixing of the materials that go into the disc you hear at home: ingredients gathered from the farthest corners of the earth! The materials are processed in one of the largest and most intricate machines I have ever seen: the Banbury Machine, three stories tall!”



The Amazing and Immortal Banbury Mixer

“One ingredient is the finest shellac obtainable, which is brought from India. [You shoulda started using vinyl earlier, you jerks.] Another resin ingredient is from the East Indies and, like the shellac, is ground into fine powder before mixing. Eighteen other ingredients gathered from distant places are carefully and accurately weighed in to ensure the most exact proportions to make a correct final mixture. All the ingredients are finely ground and poured into the mixer to be combined under heat with the powdered shellac, which is sucked through the machine by a vacuum pipe.”

Remember: all this to make fragile records that cracked and broke just by blowing air on them the wrong way.

“Now all is ready, and the Banbury Mixer rolls!”

Roll on, O Banbury, roll on!

“Inside this huge machine, three stories tall, the mixture is heated to the melting point, whipped and stirred and beaten until it is thoroughly mixed to a dough-like consistency. The hot mixture falls out on great rollers, where it is heated and rolled into a long, flat sheet. As it comes out of the machine, circular knives cut it into pieces called biscuits, each the right size to make one record.”

10-inch or 12-inch?

“The biscuit, cooled for easy handling, come off the belt in neat little piles, but before they are used for actual pressing they must be heated again on steam tables.

“Then I saw a record pressed.” At long last! Yes! THANK YOU, JESUS!

“First, steam is shot through the machine. Then cool water runs through to cool the record. Two stampers are used in the machine at the same time to press both sides of the record.”

Wonder what was on the other side? “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle” played by Larry Adler on the harmonica?

“The labels are placed into the stamper, I learned, and thus pressed into the record, not just pasted on.”

Oh, so THAT’S why they were so goddamn hard to remove!

“Eventually comes a listening test, where the record is played for expert ears.”

Well, not expert enough if they let all those dead-sounding Toscanini records get through.

Anyway, that was a LOT more steps than I thought they used and way too much information.

And at the end of the film, we see what RCA apparently felt was the Typical American Family on a Sunday afternoon. Dad sitting on the sofa, reading a book; Mom in an easy chair, reading a Popular Magazine. In between them, Daughter moves towards a low shelf under the phonograph and selects a record…yup, you guessed it…the very record we saw being recorded. Now, the daughter looks to be a good 11 or 12 years old, clearly old enough to put a record on by herself, but no! She gives the record to Mom and makes her get out of her easy chair to put it on. Daughter smiles; Mother gazes at the phonograph with a serious look of concentration on her face; Father puts down his book and, as Daughter smilingly goes to sit down next to him, he looks up at the ceiling, apparently imagining that both God and Johann Strauss have paid him a miraculous visitation on this fine Sunday afternoon.

All hail the Banbury Machine!!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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