Kreisler’s 1926-27 Recordings Reissued

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LEMARE (arr. Saenger): Andantino [Moonlight and Roses]. CADMAN (arr. Risland): At Dawning. LEHÁR: “Kreisler” Serenade. Serenade from “Frasquita” (arr. Kreisler). OWEN (arr. Kreisler): Invocation. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr. Gordon): Oriental Romance [The Nightingale and the Rose]. TCHAIKOVSKY (arr. Kreisler): Humoresque. RACHMANINOV (arr. Kreisler): Albumblatt, “Daisies.: KREISLER: Caprice Viennois. Liebesfreud. Liebeslied (2 tks). Old German Shepherd’s Madrigal (2 tks). DE FALLA (arr. Kreisler): La Vida Breve: Danza española (2 tks).*+ BRAHMS (arr. Kreisler): Hungarian Dance No. 17.* DEBUSSY (arr. Hartmann): The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.* Petite Suite: En bateau (arr. Choisnel).+ SCOTT (arr. Kreisler): Lotus Land.+ MENDELSSOHN (arr. Kreisler): May Breezes [Songs Without Words, Op. 62 No. 1].+J.S. BACH: Sonata in d min., BWV 1001: Adagio. BERLIN (arr. Kreisler): Blue Skies. FRIML (arr. Kreisler): Dance of the Maidens / Fritz Kreisler, vln; Carl Lamson, *Michael Raucheisen, +Arpád Sándor, pno / Naxos Historical 8.111409

Technically speaking, this album is not available for sale in the U.S. due to copyright restrictions, but as I pointed out in my earlier article, Take This Music…For Free!, the major labels themselves have so compromised their own imposed rules by allowing their recordings to be streamed (on YouTube and Spotify) and even downloaded (on Freegal and other sites) for free that this restriction is pretty much a farce. And let’s be honest, folks, who besides a few thousand die-hard classical listeners are going to want nearly 100-year-old recordings by Fritz Kreisler anyway?

This album, however, is rather more interesting than the previous releases that only included Kreisler’s American recordings, mostly of his favorite “chestnuts.” Only four pieces on here are by Kreisler himself, the famed Caprice Viennois, Liebesfreud, Liebeslied (two takes) and the seldom-heard Old German Shepherd’s Madrigal, while there is a surprising number of genuine classical gems (Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 17, two takes of de Falla’s Danza españols from La Vida Breve, two pieces by Debussy and the “Adagio” from Bach’s solo violin sonata in d minor) and an even larger number of contemporary pop songs transcribed for the violin. Among these are Moonlight and Roses, At Dawning, Blue Skies and Rudolf Friml’s Dance of the Maidens. Thus we get here, you might say, the good, the bad, and the sappy, and brothers and sisters, let me tell ya, Kreisler was all about sappiness. Luckily, he redeemed himself with serious classical collectors by recording three major sonatas (by Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg) with Sergei Rachmaninov in 1926 (none of which are represented on this CD), the Beethoven  and Mendelssohn Violin Concerti, and in the mid-1930s he became the first violinist to record the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas.

But let’s face it, folks: Fritz Kreisler endeared himself to millions more people than any other famous violinist in history, and even very serious listeners like myself occasionally enjoy listening to his recordings because they’re just so warm and beautiful. A famous Indian guru (I forget his name) once said that he rarely if ever listened to recorded music, but he took great pleasure in listening to Kreisler, and the great trombonist Tommy Dorsey had a 78-rpm album of Kreisler playing his own works in his collection in which the grooves were worn white. On the downside, he made it extremely difficult for more serious violinists who didn’t indulge in folderol to establish themselves as solo concert artists. Heifetz and Menuhin were two of the lucky few to do so; Toscha Seidl, Albert Spaulding, Guila Bustabo and even young Ginette Neveu all struggled to find concert managers because almost no one could complete with Kreisler. In fact, Kreisler was so beloved, and viewed by almost everyone as being completely apolitical, that he was practically the only German or Austrian artist who was allowed to record all through the First World War, even including a recording of the Austrian National Anthem!

Listening to this set, you realize why he was so beloved. It wasn’t just his warmth of tone; Seidl and the older Mischa Elman also had warm tones. It was that touch of Viennese schmaltz that he threw into his playing that made him special, and although the back cover inlay for this set says that “We are indeed fortunate that Fritz Kreisler was still at the peak of his powers when electrical recording arrived in 1925,” the truth is that, insofar as most of this kind of music went, he never really lost his ability to play it. I have a set of records that he made of Caprice Viennois, Tambourin Chinois, Liebesfreud, Liebeslied, Schön Rosmarin and La Gitana with the Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles O’Connell in 1942, and he was still the same old Fritz Kreisler. He didn’t really deteriorate until 1946, when he made his last commercial recordings.

Since everyone hears music differently, I won’t try to impose my tastes on you but just mention the recordings I’d never heard before but enjoyed the most: Franz Lehár’s “Kreisler” Serenade and the “Serenade” from Frasquita, a.k.a. “Haub’ ein blaues Himmelbett” (where was Richard Tauber when you needed him to duet with Kreisler on this? Oh, yeah, signed with Odeon, not HMV!), Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque, the de Falla Danza española (the second take especially), the Brahms Hungarian Dance, the two Debussy pieces (which somehow fit his Viennese style like a glove), Cyril Scott’s strangely haunting Lotus Land and the Bach “Adagio,” surprisingly clean and relatively portamento-free for Kreisler. I could have lived without hearing him play Moonlight and Roses or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, as sappy a version as you’ve ever heard in your life. I can even tolerate Al Jolson’s version over this!

A major reason why Kriesler’s recordings have not only survived but still attract listeners, despite their dated sound, is the fact that no one today plays like this. I’m not even sure they’re capable of doing so. I’ve heard at least a dozen “Tribute to Fritz Kreisler” albums, not to mention Kreisler pieces stuck into the middle of other violin recital records, and they just don’t have his schmaltz. In fact, the majority don’t even come close (only James Ehnes does, but his playing is just a smidgen too clean, omitting those little portamenti that made Kreisler Kreisler). But then again, almost no tenors today (except Daniel Behle) come close to the singing style of such 1930s tenors as Joseph Schmidt, Tauber or Helge Rosvaenge, either. They just can’t capture the lilt and swing of the music. It’s not technique, it’s style; that puckish humor Kreisler had in fast passages, his broad but never overdone portamento, the way he could “lean in” to a phrase and make it sound as if he were singing it in his mind while the bow translated his singing into violin tone. It’s just not in most modern violinists to be able to do this. For that matter, it wasn’t in Heifetz, Menuhin or Neveu either, outstanding as they were in their own way. And make no mistake: technically superior than they may have been, all three of those violinists, and dozens of others, secretly or overtly admired what Kreisler could do because he did it so naturally that it was almost like speaking in strings.

Interestingly, Kreisler’s two takes of the Danza española feature two different pianists. The first recording features the great Michael Raucheisen, who also accompanied such famous lieder singers as Leo Slezak and Peter Anders as well as the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann while the later take, for some reason, features Heifetz’ accompanist of the time, Arpád Sándor. Incidentally, despite what one would think was a fierce rivalry, Kreisler and Heifetz were very close friends. There’s a marvelous photo of the two of them in a swimming pool together, Kriesler smiling and the usually stone-faced Heifetz grinning from ear to ear. They really enjoyed each others’ company.

As usual, Ward Marston does a good job of bringing the original sound forward but doesn’t remove nearly as much of the old surface swish and that “powdery” sound of the records as could be done without damaging the sound of his violin. An interesting record, then, with seven or eight pieces of (to me) effluvia on it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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New Szymanowski-Zemlinsky CD

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 1.* ZEMLINSKY: Lyric Symphony^/ *Elina Vähälä, vln; ^Johanna Winkel, sop; ^Michael Nagy, bar; Polish National Radio Symphony Orch.; Alexander Liebreich, cond / Accentus Music ACC30470

This disc combines two early 20th-century works of different styles: Szymanowski’s Debussy-and-Ravel-inspired Violin Concerto No. 1 and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. Although the Szymanowski is scarcely a repertoire item (though it should be), since it is less popular than his Second Concerto, the Zemlinsky is an even rarer work in the concert hall despite the high regard in which many musicians hold it.

Although this is a very exciting and well-played performance of the Violin Concerto, both the soloist and orchestra give it a more Germanic sound, almost like a work by Strauss, than the more authentically Polish-sounding recording by violinist Ilya Kaler with the Warsaw Philharmonic conducted by the great Antoni Wit. This is not such a bad thing, however, as conductor Alexander Liebreich brings out the structure of the work very well in this reading, and both the playing and the sonics are uniformly excellent. One is, however, not generally used to such a taut reading of Szymanowski.

Zemlinsky’s symphony has often been compared to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as a superb work for full orchestra with soloists, but here, too, Leibreich conducts it in a taut, swift reading that makes it bear a stronger resemblance to Strauss. And sadly, his soloists are pretty punk, baritone Nagy having an uneven wobble in the voice and soprano Winkel, though somewhat steadier despite a flutter, having a somewhat shrill and hard at full volume. What rock do they find these people under? Indeed, between the hard-driven tempi of Leibreich and the simply awful, equally overdriven singing of the two principals, it doesn’t emerge so much as a “lyric” symphony so much as a snarling screaming match with Bronco Nagurski pile-driving the orchestra like a linebacker. What on earth were they thinking?

cover 2The best performance of the Zemlinsky symphony remains the sterling recording with baritone Matthias Goerne, soprano Christine Schäfer, and the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Capriccio C71081 from 2006. A split review, then; the Szymanowski is interesting whereas the Zemlinsky is just a disaster.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Tortelier Wows in Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy”

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RESPIGHI: Fountains of Rome. Pines of Rome. Feste Romane / Philharmonia Orch.; Yan Pascal Tortelier, cond / Chandos CHAN 10035X

Ottorino’s Respighi’s so-called “Roman Trilogy,” his most famous and popular works, have often suffered at the hands of both performers and critics over the decades. Part of the problem in the performance angle is that they are closely associated with Arturo Toscanini whose recordings of them from 1949-53, in very fine high fidelity sound, set a benchmark that even his rival Fritz Reiner and his good friend Eugene Ormandy could not eclipse, and I daresay that too many conductors—like the critics who berate them—only hear them for the flash and color of the scores and not for the many wonderful subtleties in them. Yes, Respighi wrote finer things, but I would take any one of these multi-movement tone poems over the whole of Gershwin’s or Rachmaninov’s orchestral output. Their music was derivative and formulaic. Respighi’s was wholly authentic and came from the heart.

And that is where the problem lies in so many recordings of these works. Either some details that one hears in the Toscanini readings are missing or not clearly audible (Reiner), or the pacing and shaping of the music sounds crude and brusque (Ormandy), or, worse yet, all of the dynamics marked on the page are religiously adhered to yet the end result lacks the inner fire that really makes them work (many others). In fact, it was my intention to review an entirely new and different recording of this trilogy, but upon listening to it I found the performance exceptionally well detailed but lacking that final push that makes it sound “authentic” to me.

Tortelier, though French, clearly had a handle on these tricky works. This recording was made in 1991 but, for whatever reason, was neglected by most critics when it was initially released, only getting noticed when it was reissued 11 years later. Critics have dismissed this music for generations as trashy circus-music, but unfortunately for them it’s not true. These are complex works, brilliantly conceived, that just happen to have very colorful orchestration. I’m sure that if they were orchestrated in a dull manner by some German pedant they’d think the music was just ducky. Moreover, in the first two pieces there are as many if not more moments of extended quiet passages, which to my ears are truly exquisite, although these are the moments in the music that don’t get praised while the critics are busy lambasting what they call the “movie music” passages. Just one example of several is the “Pines at the catacombs” passage; here, and in other moments, Respighi created music with real feeling and ambience that makes a great effect, not only on recordings but in the concert hall (where, sadly, I’ve never heard them performed).

But Tortelier, the son of the great French cellist Paul Tortelier, is obviously not one of those conductors who thinks this music trash. He lavishes as much care on both the phrasing and the structural clarity of each bar as if he wrote the music himself. He might have picked up his affection for these pieces via the Toscanini recordings; his father played under Toscanini during his years with the New York Philharmonic and admired the older conductor tremendously.

In one respect, Tortelier is closer to the fidelity of the score than Toscanini. In the finale of his NBC recording of The Pines of Rome, Toscanini does some creative editing of the tempo. The score indicates a pace of quarter = 66 (“Tempo di Marcia”). Toscanini actually begins slower than that, but gradually accelerates to quarter = 72 at the crescendo. Then, at the end, he suddenly takes a big ritard that is unmarked in the score. Interestingly, he did exactly the same thing in his New York Philharmonic performance of January 1945, a period when he was supposedly much stricter in tempi. Tortelier observes the score with greater fidelity, yet is still able to create a stunning crescendo finale.

Roman Festivals is undoubtedly the loudest and splashiest of the three works, yet interestingly it was the only one that Respighi wrote specifically for Toscanini, who had rescued the first two from oblivion (almost no one was conducting them). Knowing that Toscanini took all of the music he liked and performed seriously, and not just as a “wall of sound” experience, Respighi trusted him to perform it without overdoing the explosive orchestral effects written into the score, and this he did. For whatever reason, however, it was the first of these three tone poems that Toscanini recorded commercially, in 1949 when high fidelity sound was still not fully perfected at RCA and did not have as wide a dynamic range as it had by the time he quit conducting in 1954. Who they didn’t choose to re-recorded it in early 1954, and in an alternative stereo version to boot, I don’t know, but at the 1949 recording sessions Toscanini was unhappy with the moderate volume of the playback. He asked the engineers to turn it up so that he could “hear everything.” Their response was that it was too dangerous to play such loud music at a high volume because it might break their equipment. “I don’t care!” Toscanini shouted at him. “Smash the machines!” He got his way.

Still, even here, for instance in “Giubileo,” Respighi wrote much remarkable music using two different rhythms going on at the same time, and the way they are contrasted is quite complex. Toscanini handled this with his customary virtuosity, and it is to Tortelier’s credit that he does the same.

No two ways about it, these are the finest recordings of these works since Toscanini’s originals. And I would go even further: Tortelier pushes the Philharmonia Orchestra almost as hard as Toscanini himself pushed their earlier incarnation in his 1952 Brahms concerts, to the point where, in the loudest passages, the upper strings almost take on an edgy quality—something that Respighi intended when he wrote the music, but which many conductors refuse to do. I still think that Toscanini’s 1949 recording of Feste Romane has a bit more of a manic drive (his 1942 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though exquisitely played, didn’t have that edge), but Tortelier came damn close. Sony-BMG’s modern issues of the Toscanini recordings enhance the sound just enough to make it sound almost, but not quite, like early stereo, yet if you want excellent modern digital recordings of these works, Tortelier is clearly your choice. The extra dimension of the added dynamic range make them, for me, perhaps even slightly preferable to Toscanini—and no, that’s not blasphemy. They’re that good.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Riem Plays Debussy & Szymanowski Études

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DEBUSSY: 12 Études. SZYMANOWSKI: Études Op. 33 / Julian Riem, pno / TYXart TXA 18100

Here is a recording of Debussy’s late Études, his most modern, difficult and unpopular music, along with Szymanowski’s similar set of 12 pieces. What’s interesting about them is that they were written only one year apart, the Debussy in 1915 and the Szymanowski in 1916, at which point the former composer was still alive (though becoming quite ill).

What one hears in these performances of the Debussy, in particular, is an energetic interpretation in which Julian Riem revels in the music’s oddities, producing quite dynamic and exciting performances. I would place them very near the high level of Michael Korstick’s recordings on SWR Music 19044, a disc to which I gave a rave review when it first came out. The principal difference is that Korstick used some subtle rubato in places, whereas Riem seems to be keeping much stricter time. But he’s definitely a fine pianist; not only is his digital dexterity amazing in the sixth étude (“for eight fingers”), but he articulates the music properly despite his racing tempo.

In both these Études and his late ballet music for Jeux, not to mention the unfinished fragments of his Poe-inspired opera The Devil in the Belfry, one hears a different Debussy, one who was breaking free of the floating impressionism that had been his hallmark for two decades and which made his name. Of course, there were moments even in the Preludes for Orchestra, particularly in Ibéria, and in La Mer that were outward, energetic music, but these late works are even more so. He was somewhat influenced by the music of his new friend, Igor Stravinsky, to write in a more vivid and angular style with bolder dissonances than before.

Szymanowski’s Études are likewise more outward-looking music than was usual for him, despite the fact that they were dedicated to Alfred Cortot, the famous French pianist. They also tend to be shorter works than the Debussy sets, lasting between 53 seconds and 2:04 long, most of them averaging about a minute and 15 seconds. Riem also plays these in a very exciting, outward fashion, and in doing so helps to bring out their structure quite well. He particularly revels in the quirky rhythms of the ninth étude, marked “Animato,” and can really play those complex eighth-note chords in the last one, “Presto energico.” (I wonder if Cortot even liked them; to the best of my knowledge, he certainly never performed them.)

A very exciting and fun disc for lovers of “modern” (i.e., anything that has advanced harmonies, even if it’s more than a century old) piano music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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McCabe Presents Musical “Mountains”

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MOUNTAINS / SCULTHORPE: Mountains. HISCOCKS: Toccata. MASLANKA: Piano Song. Heaven to clear when day did close (Fantasy on a Theme by Barney Childs). BANKS: Pezzo Dramatico. KOEHNE: Twilight Rain. ROCHBERG: Carnival Music / John McCabe,  pno / Métier MSV 28585

 

The late composer John McCabe, who died in 2015, was also a promoter of other modern composers and works as a pianist. This recording, however, was made on a cassette tape more than 30 years ago after a tour of Australia. According to the notes by his widow Monica:

The tape was edited, and a copy sent to John, by now back in England, for him to approve. He commented that there were still one or two points needing attention, including, for example, a note touched in passing in Wendy Hiscocks’ Toccata. For whatever reason, possibly through lack of immediate funding, the re-edit went on the back-burner, and the recording was never issued.

Time passed. Australian colleagues retired, moved on, or died, and the studio where the recording took place closed down. The tapes seemed irretrievably lost. John, though disappointed, was very busy, and the recording was forgotten. Fast forward to 2016. John sadly had recently died of brain cancer. Out of the blue, Wendy Hiscocks contacted me, wondering if such a recording had taken place; if so she would love to hear it. I replied that I would check John’s files and try to find details, even though I personally believed that it was a lost cause. To my surprise I located the Dolby cassette copy of the master tape which had been sent to John, put it in a ‘safe place’ – never a good thing – and promptly forgot where. I apologized to Wendy, but a year went by before I relocated it. I listened to the tape on my little cassette player, and thought it sounded surprisingly good, so I had it put on CD by Dinmore Records, who had previously salvaged archive tapes of Nielsen and Grieg piano music performed by John.

I was bowled over by the quality of the sound from the cassette, after so many years. There remained some problems, ranging from the uncompleted editing, to several instances of post-echo and ‘noises off’. Nevertheless I felt that it was a viable, very interesting archive recording by John, and fortunately Divine Art agreed with me and arranged for the complete restoration and remastering of the recording by Paul Baily of ReSound UK following which some final edits were carried out by Oscar Torres.

Since this was 1985, the tape is probably analog. Commercial DAT machines didn’t appear until a few years later, one of those audio formats that didn’t catch on with the public in general because they were extremely expensive and the number of commercial DATs were very few. Nonetheless, as Monica McCabe stated, the sound quality is excellent. Her husband evidently knew how to record himself professionally and did so to good effect, and the music is indeed interesting, starting with the granitic opening chords of Peter Sculthorpe’s Mountains, commissioned by the Sydney International Piano Competition in 1981. In a world where so many modern composers set out to dazzle and overwhelm their listeners, it’s refreshing to hear a work built on solid musical principles that develops in an interesting way without gimmicks.

The Toccata by Wendy Hiscocks, one of Sculthorpe’s composition pupils, is also a solidly written piece using repetitive figures and a driving rhythm to propel it. The piece is built around varied relationships between the spacing of the intervals of the notes played, which gives the music great interest. Piano Song, a very lyrical modern piece, was written by American composer David Maslanka, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory. Despite the relatively tonal bias of the piece, it is, again, excellent and solidly written.

By contrast, Don Banks’ Pezzo Dramatico lives up to its title, presenting edgy atonal motifs which are tossed around  yet knitted together. A pupil of the great but oft-ignored composer-pedagogue Mátyás Sieber, Banks also studied with Dallapiccola in Florence, lived for many years in London and based some of the rhythmic devices of his music (but not in this piece) on jazz improvisation. Twilight Rain by Graeme Koehner, who studied in Adelaide with Richard Meale, is more of an atmospheric piece, pleasant but not particularly substantive music. It goes in one ear, comes out the other, and nothing sticks. It’s musical flotsam and jetsam.

But then we come to Carnival Music by the formidable George Rochberg, who studied at the Mannes School of Music and gained prominence during the 1950s with his powerful, expressive serial works. Written in 1970 for American pianist Jerome Lowenthal, Carnival Music sounds like French movie music on steroids. Rochberg claimed that the music “hangs together largely through contrasting intensities of opposites,” different types of music such as marches, ragtime, blues and “more ‘serious’ musical traditions.” Sadly, McCabe had absolutely no feeling for playing the blues, thus the second movement sounds as stiff and artificial as one of George Gershwin’s “blues” pieces (sorry, folks, but Gershwin wrote derivative “black” music that unfortunately didn’t sound black, just derivative). With a more jazz-tinged pianist playing it, this would clearly be a great concert piece to hear as the music is quite excellent. (Listen to Lowenthal’s own recording on Bridge Records for just one example; he’s not quite as loose as Walter Gieseking playing Tansman’s Blues or some of the better jazz-classical pianists around today like Bruce Wolosoff, but he’s clearly more into the proper feeling of the piece than McCabe.) The “Largo doloroso” is an amazing piece, a series of whole notes virtually floating through space, and McCabe captures this perfectly. “Sfumato” moves along at a slowish pace, played mostly in the middle to low end of the keyboard, its smoldering bitonality suggesting moodiness and a bit of menace. The “Toccata-Rag” is a mixture of both the classical and pop worlds. McCabe captures the ragtime feeling somewhat better than he did the blues; it’s another wonderful episode in this suite full of potpourri music.

McCabe’s recital ends with the second Maslanka piece, attributed to Barney Childs alone on the back cover CD inlay. It’s a curious work, using stop-and-go musical patterns to create a sort of audio patchwork quilt of sounds, and again McCabe plays it very well.

All in all, a disc worth hearing. Despite my few caveats, most of this music is quite excellent and McCabe’s playing is for the most part quite idiomatic.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Ana María Alonso Plays Modern Spanish Music

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WP 2019 - 2ALTO MYSTIC / CARRO: Luna de abajo. CANO: Sonata for Solo Viola. VERDU: Quasid. BUSTAMANTE: Quasi una cadenza. ERKOREKA: Ilargi. DEL PUERTO: Bluescape. TORRES: Plezas misticas. TURINA: Viola Joke. MARINÉ: Fábulas: I. El avestruz.* LANCHARES: Espera, luz, espera / Ana María Alonso, vla; *Alejandra Alonso, narr / IBS Classical 5192018

Thirty-seven-year-old violist Ana María Alonso gives us here a program of works written by Spanish composers between 1995 (the Mariné Fabulas) and 2017 (Carlos Peron Cano’s sonata for solo viola), some of it leaning towards a tonal and somewhat Romantic style and some not. In the opener, Mario Carro’s Luna de abajo, we start out with just such a melody but by a minute in the tempo doubles and the music becomes very rhythmic, with double-time passages of an edgy nature which add interest. The music then moves into swirling figures as part of the development and becomes even more complex. This piece is exceptionally well-written and fascinating from start to finish.

Interestingly, Cano’s Sonata for Solo Viola starts out in the same key in which the Carro piece ends, at first sounding like an extension of it, but this is an altogether wilder, bolder piece of music, pushing the boundaries of the instrument with heavy downbow and edge-of-the-string effects that manage not to sound contrived. In the second movement, Cano plays with sliding tonality in an interesting manner. Incidentally, this work was composed for and dedicated to Alonso. The fourth and last movement, a “Moto perpetuo,” is played with incredible fire and verve.

But if you think the sonata was an odd piece, wait until you hear Jose Ma Sanchez Verdu’s Quasid, much of which seems to be played high up on the bridge in what I would call “whistle tone.” Miguel Bustamante’s Quasi una cadenza was originally written for the composer’s son to play on violin; it’s an interesting piece in which themes are juxtaposed, some lyrical, some fast passages, and a great many played pizzicato or with rough downbow strokes.

Gabriel Erkoreka’s Ilargi is named after the word for the moon in Euskera, part of the ancestral mythology of Euskal Herria. This piece alternates between edgy bowed passages and pizzicato, and again juxtaposes themes. David Del Puerto’s Bluescape is more lyrical in style but still modern in its melodic and harmonic construction, while Jesús Torres’ tripartite Piezas misticas uses edge-of-the-string effects to create an unusual mood while still intriguing the listener with occasional rhythmic interludes.

Turina’s Viola Joke is full of difficult, edgy passages as well as some intentionally clumsy ones that make the attentive listener chuckle including, at the very end, a brief quote from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Yet I felt it was a joke that went on a bit too long for what it was, 11 ½ minutes in fact…a rare miscalculation by this acknowledged great composer. The first part of Sebastián Mariné’s Fábulas, a fable about an ostrich which includes Alonso’s daughter Alejandro as the occasional narrator, was, I felt, the one piece on this disc that was more edgy, flashy passages than really solid musical development.

This recital closes with Santiago Lanchares’ Espera, luz, espera, inspired by a nostalgic poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Originally written for solo cello, it was adapted for the viola in this transcription dedicated to Alonso, who plays it with her customary fire and energy.

Quite aside from the interesting qualities of these pieces, what impressed me most about this CD was Ana María Alonso herself. She is an absolute wizard on her instrument, capable not only of playing these challenging pieces well but of completely holding your attention for the full 79 minutes of this CD with her emotional commitment and intensity. She is quite an artist in the truest sense of the word. Would that we had more like her out there with her daring, explorative nature and high commitment to modern music!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Reassessing Alessandro Moreschi & Friends

moreschi 1Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) was the most famous castrato singer of the late 19th century and the only castrato of the classic bel canto tradition to make solo recordings. He was a pupil of Gaetano Capocci, maestro di cappella of the Papal basilica of St. John Lutheran, at the Scuola di San Salvatore in Lauro. He was initially hired by Capocci to sing in the salons of Roman high society, where in addition to non-gender-specific material like the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria he also sang such soprano arias as the jewel song from Gounod’s Faust—looking at himself in a hand-held mirror when he sang the line, “Am I really Marguerite?” (the flat answer was “not in the least”!) At age 25 Capocci cast him in a special showcase, singing the role of the Seraph in the first Italian performance of Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge. On the strength of this performance he was dubbed l’angelo di Roma. Shortly thereafter he auditioned for a spot in the Sistine Chapel Choir before all of its members and was appointed First Soprano, the position he held for the next 30 years.

The director of the Sistine Chapel Choir at the time was Domenico Mustafà (1829-1912), who had himself been a solo castrato soprano, in the opinion of many even finer than Moreschi. After a long and distinguished career on the stage—Wagner considered casting him as Klingsor in the world premiere of Parsifal until Mustafà pointed out that the emasculated Klingsor was not a castrato but a eunuch castrated after puberty—he had himself joined the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1848 and became director in 1860. At the time Moreschi joined the choir there were still six other castrati in the group (Mustafà and five others), but all were much older and none were capable of sustaining the taxing soprano tessitura of Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of the Miserere, sung each year during Holy Week. The one drawback was that Moreschi, having tasted fame in the secular entertainment world, brought some of his prima donna airs with him. Mustafà once admitted that “Moreschi’s behavior was often capricious enough to make him forget a proper professional bearing, as on the occasion after a concert when he paraded himself among the crowd like a peacock, with a long, white scarf, to be congratulated.”

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The Sistine Chapel Choir in 1889. Director and castrato soprano Domenico Mustafa is seated front left, next to Pope Pius IX. Moreschi is in the second row of choristers, fourth from the left.

crucifixus labelIn 1900 Bettini made a cylinder recording of Moreschi singing Luigi Pratesi’s Et incarnatus est, but it wasn’t until 1902 that a representative of the Gramophone & Typewriter Company—the precursor to His Master’s Voice—was sent to Rome to record the chapel choir and also the voice of Pope Leo XIII. He did eventually capture the aged Pope on one recording, but was fascinated by the unusual sound of the all-male choir’s sopranos and altos and especially their star singer, Moreschi. Between 1902 and 1904 Moreschi, singing both solo and with the choir, made 18 recordings, which for some reason included an alternate take (made two years later than the first) of the “Crucifixus” from Rossini’s Petit Messe Solennelle. It’s hard to say if the recordings sold particularly well outside of Italy, although I have seen a French pressing of one of them on “Disque pour Gramophone” and a few were issued on the American Victor label. In any case, they are generally pretty rare in their original state though they have been issued on LP and CD several times, the best sound being achieved on a small label called Truesound Transfers (you can order it HERE.

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Yet from their first appearance on an Opal CD, with all the grinding and surface noise left in and an absolutely degenerate-looking photo of Morschi in the booklet, they have aroused wildly disparate opinions. The veteran voice teacher Ida Franca, who actually heard Moreschi sing in person during the 1910s, raved about the unique qualities of his voice in particular, though admitting that he was not considered the best castrato to have sung, as soaring through the Sistine Chapel like the voice of an angel, but many listeners hear his voice, as the British heard the voice of the earlier, more famous castrato Giovanni Velluti, “with a mixture of shock and disgust.”

pie jesu labelThere are several reasons for both reactions. At his best, in several phrases on his best recordings, Moreschi’s voice clearly has the purity of a boy soprano with the greater lung power of a grown man, as did all of the famous castrati before him. But Moreschi also had some bad singing habits that he picked up from no one knows where. Among the worst of these was an unusual “glot” in the voice where he will briefly sing a bit of a lower note and then suddenly jump up to the same note an octave higher. Vocal experts are still arguing as to whether or not this was a defective mannerism picked up in the late 19th century or an early, 18th-century form of acciaciatura which departed from the normal placement of such a note a half or whole step above or below the principal note to be sung. The other was his propensity for whining, or sobbing, when he sang, but to be honest this was a bad habit of a large number of Italian singers of the late 19th century that did not come to a complete stop until the 1950s. Tenors Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Galliano Masini all used this aberrant habit in their singing, the only difference being that they were tenors, not castrated sopranos, thus their voices were more attractive.

Truthfully, what it comes down to is this: no one nowadays is used to the sound of castrato sopranos, therefore hearing one for real is kind of like running across a brontosaurus in real life after just watching the artificially-created version in one of the Jurassic Park movies. What looked kind of neat on the screen can be downright scary when you run across the real thing. Although I am willing to concede that some castrati, particularly the great Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) of legend and probably even Mustafà, had more attractive voices than Moreschi’s in their prime, one has to concede that forcing more air through an underdeveloped larynx than that of a boy soprano or alto will by its very nature produce a louder sound and not necessarily one that will be pleasant to modern ears. Another part of the equation is that we are now used to and surrounded by male falsetto countertenors who try to produce a pleasant sound but, because they are not singing with their real voices, cannot reproduce the timbre of the castrati. They are not trying to ring the rafters with their high notes, but to make as round and pleasant a sound as possible.

The castrato voice, being almost exclusively Italian, was simply not built for beauty of sound unless it were an accident of nature. You’ve got to take what you can get, and folks, this is it. This is a recorded example of the Real Deal, a real castrato soprano, not Michael Maniacci claiming that his voice is naturally placed as a soprano even though it doesn’t sound like it in the least. Maniacci sings very cleanly and musically, but he doesn’t sound the least like a castrato, any publicity claims to the contrary. Moreschi’s records are proof of that.

For a couple of examples of what I mean, listen to the recordings, rare though they may be, of two extremely fine boy sopranos of the 20th century: William Pickels and Bejun Mehta. There are others, of course, who were/are also very fine, including Max Emanuel Cenčik and Aksel Rykkvin, but their voices are considerably gentler in volume than those of Pickels and Mehta, who sang with a great deal of breath pressure for their age. Since Pickels was active during the early years of the century, he mostly tried to dazzle his audiences by singing such things as Se saran rose, written by Luigi Arditi for the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba and thus commonly known as “the Melba waltz,” while Mehta sang Handel arias. Both produced an extraordinary sound for their young ages, with round, ringing high notes, but they could only reach a certain volume level because they had the lung capacity of an 11- or a 12-year-old. Now try imagining what those voices would sound like had they reached maturity, able to scream at a traffic cop at full volume with their man-sized lungs, but still have the underdeveloped larynxes of their 10- or 11-year old selves (some of the castrati went under the knife even younger, at age 8 or 9). You can’t shove a watermelon through a garden hose, and likewise you can’t push man-sized lung capacity through an immature larynx without having the sound distorted.

So there you are. If you can appreciate Moreschi’s recordings for the frequent beautiful and well-sung moments and ignore the defects (which also, by that time, included a slight spread in his tone in the upper mid-range though not in the high notes), you’ll hear what the Italians, Spanish and British heard back in the heyday of the castrati. You can like it or hate it, but it is what it is. You’ll probably have a hard time imagining him singing the coloratura runs of the Seraph in Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, but that was way back in 1883, nearly 20 years before he made his first G&T record, and he may well have lost that ability by then.

And then there are the recordings made by the full chorus. A close friend of mine has described the sound of this chorus, with at least (at that time) four castrati in the soprano section including Mustafà, whose voice is quite clearly heard leading the ensemble, as being like a bunch of howling cats. It’s an apt description, I suppose, but in both the cases of Mustafà and Moreschi you also need to take the factor of acoustic recording, and very early acoustic recording at that, into account. By 1904, when the last of these records were made, even many of the most celebrated female sopranos in the opera world didn’t always come across very well on records. The “realistic” range of acoustic recording lopped off the high range at about the level of a baritone’s high A, which is why strings and high wind instruments simply don’t sound normal to our ears, and the soprano voice suffered the most. There was also the fact that it wasn’t until 1912 or ’13 that engineers realized that recording some of the studio ambience gave voices (and instruments) some room to resonate. By the time the famed Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich stopped making commercial records in 1908 it hadn’t improved much, but listen to her late acoustic recordings (unissued commercially) from 1919 and you’ll be amazed at how much more of her real voice is on them. Nobody bothered to go back and re-record Moreschi after that early batch, which tells you that they probably sold poorly, yet he stayed in the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1914, a year after he could have retired voluntarily.

Even so, I have an unpleasant bit of news for you. These full chorus recordings, weird as they sound to modern ears, are probably EXACTLY what the music of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant sounded like back in the 17th century when the castrati first came into the picture because women were banned from Catholic church choirs. Like it or not, the smooth, silken but (in its own odd way) emasculated sound of such vocal groups as The Sixteen bears absolutely no resemblance to the way real Italian church choirs sang this music back in the day. If you’re searching for real Historically-Informed Performances, baby, these are It. Like them or not.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Eleanor Meynell’s Lively Piano Recital

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PIANO MUSIC FROM LEIPZIG / BACH: Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue. MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words, Op. 19 Nos. 1, 3 & 6; Op. 67 No. 3; Op. 102 No. 5 / GRIEG: Lyric Pieces, Op. 38: Berceuse; Melody; Halling; Spring Dance; Elegy; Waltz; Canon. GADE: 4 Folk Dances. Op. 31. BRAHMS: Scherzo, Op. 4 in Eb min. / Eleanor Meynell, pno / Music Media MMC125

Ordinarily, this is the kind of CD I avoid reviewing—a recital of conventional older music, most of which I’ve heard 1,000 times before—but I found Eleanor Meynell’s playing so lively and rhythmically alert that, in sampling it, I just couldn’t resist. A pupil of Heather Slade-Lipkin and Ryzsard Bakst at Chetham’s School of Music by the age of 11, Meynell has played as both a soloist and chamber musician on BBC Radio 3, Classic fM and Radio Belfast as well as acting as accompanist and coach at Trinity Laban College of Music and Goldsmiths College. She even sings in the Monteverdi Choir!

Playing a crisp-sounding Feurich piano, she gives us a program of music written by composers who worked (Bach and Mendelssohn) or studied (Grieg) in Leipzig. Her touch at the keyboard isn’t as strong as that of Glenn Gould, but she shares the same kind of crisp approach to music as the famous Canadian pianist. She also makes the piano sing, not only in the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words (too often played in a strictly pianistic style without lyricism) but also in the Bach Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue.

Meynell doesn’t distinguish the Mendelssohn pieces much from those by Grieg and Gade, but she doesn’t have to. They’re all of a whole: lightweight, tonal, Romantic salon music designed to entertain rather than enlighten the listener, and she certainly makes them entertaining. Her rhythms fairly bounce and she sounds as if she’s having a ball playing them, as if they were her favorite Beatles songs (although several Beatles songs are much more complex than these).

All in all, then, a very fine recording. Though I’m not crazy about them as a rule, these are now my favorite recordings of the Mendelssohn pieces.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Martin Georgiev’s Cosmic Music

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GENESIS / GEORGIEV: Symphonic Triptych No. 1. Percussion Concerto No. 3, GENESIS / Tatiana Koleva, mar; Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orch.; Martin Georgiev, cond / Chronos ISCM 010

Martin Georgiev (b. 1983) is a Bulgarian composer whose works are mostly known in his home country, specifically in Varna where his music has been commissioned, performed and now recorded. He was given an award for a symphonic composition in 2003 when he was only 19 years old, and later graduated with distinction from the National Academy of Music in Sofia with degrees in both conducting and composition.

The first work, or works, on this disc is his Symphonic Triptych No. 1, which was written between 2006 and 2015. At first blush, it sounds like the kind of soft, ambient music that is so popular today, particularly on classical music stations, but within a couple of minutes you notice that it is changing, morphing, and developing. Georgiev definitely has a long-range view of what he is writing, and before long you start to feel as if his music is a cross between Szymanowski and Segerstam. He mostly uses the kind of bright orchestration associated with modern French composers (Debussy, Messiaen, Dutilleux), which includes a reliance on high strings and winds, but he also creates a sort of swirling nimbus of sound around it by using the harp and marimba in a very creative and unusual manner. Curiously, he also uses growling trumpets—a device clearly borrowed from jazz orchestras—in a non-jazz manner. Unlike Segerstam, whose music seems to “float” without a steady pulse (he refers to this as his “free pulsative” style), Georgiev’s scores are constantly being nudged forward with an underlying pulse that is, at the same time, not clearly defined. It’s almost like seeing someone who appears to be gliding across the surface of a floor or a road but whose feet are actually touching the ground, however lightly.

Georgiev uses Eastern European harmonies and modes that are stretched out via bitonality and tone clusters. At the loudest and most excited moments in his scores, the music becomes very complex indeed, and this is where it sounds a lot like Segerstam, with several different lines contrasting and even clashing with each other while somehow being pushed together.

There is also the unusual feeling in this music of celestial influence, i.e., as if watching the night sky with its myriad stars, comets, planets and meteors is somehow captured in these scores. Georgiev clearly has an open mind regarding form, following his own muse regarding both mood and tempi which make his progressions completely unpredictable. I liked this as well. The second part of his Symphonic Triptych ends, unexpectedly, with a solo cello leading us off into the void.

Interestingly, the third movement has a more clearly defined pulse and an almost chipper feeling despite the constant use of bitonality and tone clusters, but this later shifts towards the vein of the first movement.

The marimba concerto contrasts the edgy, cosmic-sounding orchestra against the peppy double-time playing of the soloist. It doesn’t sound as much like a conventional concerto as it does a concerto grosso with marimba accompaniment. There are also moments where Georgiev contrasts two different motives played by two different sections of the orchestra against one another. Later, very high winds (flutes and piccolos) play a strange figure while the solo marimba comes in and out of their conversation. It’s all very strange, enticing the listener as it baffles, and again, somewhat cosmic in feeling. In the last movement rolling, downward chromatic figures played by the soloist are echoed in the orchestra before low trumpets clash tonally with the trombones to usher in a fairly ominous-sounding section, which turns more lyrical but not more tonal. A broader theme, played by the trumpets in the right channel and the trombones in the left, return us to the fast, edgy music as the marimba soloist plays wild figures above chords held by the lower strings. The work then ends abruptly.

These are clearly interesting works by an imaginative composer, well worth checking out.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Getting Into Gustavo Díaz-Jerez’ “Metaludios”

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DÍAZ-JEREZ: Metaludios, Books I-III / Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, pno / IBS Classical 182018

This was my introduction to composer-pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, whose Metaludios are essentially piano etudes, but as the composer states in the notes, etudes with an attitude. “I have tried to give each Metaludio its own character,” he writes, “with distinguishing features that define its identity and differentiate it from the next. The titles give them away, sometimes because of the underlying scientific process, sometimes because of a mythological story…”

Some of the Metaludios have strange titles that, to me at least, gave nothing away because I could not comprehend what they meant: “Izar Iluna,” “Kenotaphion,” “Orahan,” “Rule 110,” etc. Others were much clear to me, i.e. “Homage to Antonio Soler,” “Succubus,” “Sisyphus,” “An error occurred,” Microsuite” and “Nonlinear recurrences.” Yet the music is, for the most part, intriguing and highly original. The music is atmospheric in the best sense of the word and modern insofar as it uses unusual chord positions and changes, yet there always seems to be a lyrical feeling to everything he writes and plays. It’s kind of like being caught at a piano recital in your dreams, where the pianist sits down and you think you’re going to get Brahms or Chopin, but instead the sounds that emerge from the keyboard are alien and almost defy description.

Not that I couldn’t describe these pieces technically. They are challenging but, for the most part, not as difficult to play as the music of Koechlin, Szymanowski or Sorabji. I mention those first two composers because, like them, Diaz-Jerez’ music seems to be very much allied to the Impressionistic school…i.e., Koechlin or Debussy filtered through the lens of Stravinsky and Ligeti. Approaching it with my waking mind in the spirit of adventure, I liked it very much because it communicates in its echt-alien way and makes musical sense, but I could understand how Alice, trapped in the Wonderland hallway with only tiny doors to escape from, would find it unsettling and perhaps even a bit creepy. If you orchestrated them, these pieces would make great background music for a surrealist science fiction film (Fantastic Planet comes to mind, or that Twilight Zone episode where a little boy gets trapped in an opaque, formless dimension in the wall behind his bed).

Occasionally, as in “Imaginary continuum,” you get a little bit of a regular rhythm in the bass line or, as in “Homenaje a Antonio Soler,” forward rhythms in double-time in the opening two minutes while the right hand plays its Impressionistic, alien figures above them. Díaz-Jerez has indeed found his own niche, a little trap door in the fabric of the musical space-time continuum, and he delights in misleading the listener’s ear. We approach each Metaludio expecting the music to continue and/or conclude in one way, but each one takes a left turn somewhere along the way and leads you, Pied Piper-like, down a strange and different rabbit-hole where you feel comfortable yet confused. You think you see light at the end of each piece’s little tunnel, but it just leads you nowhere, so you just sit down, puzzled, and try to figure out where to go next. In a piece like “Orahan,” which is slowly-played yet seems to be made up of little melodic fragments that sound alike yet strangely different, you almost feel as if you’re looking at a painting that has been broken up into small pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

And it is exactly Díaz-Jerez’ frequent use of melody and what sounds to the ear like tonal harmony, but isn’t, that creates these illusions. “I have a nice bedtime story to tell you,” this music says, “so just relax while daddy tucks you in. Once upon a time, there was a fairy princess who walked into a marshmallow field. Her feet sank into the marshmallows and she felt so sleepy that she just had to lay down for a while to rest. That’s when the bog-spirits came and sang her a lullaby, and when she woke up she was in outer space with the flying monkeys and a floating billboard that said ‘This Way to Nowhere.’” In the Book I No. 6 piece, “Stheno,” Díaz-Jerez plays the inner strings of the piano at the beginning, creating yet another strange sound-world, which he alternates with running right-hand figures in a modal vein. At about 2:40, he moves into a jagged but strong rhythm using very low bass notes, against which he plays strange figures with the right hand. “Quantum foam” also features a great deal of inside-piano playing, this time in the lower reaches of the instrument. Indeed, most of Book II includes this technique as the music becomes ever spacier, reminding me of Almeida Prado’s Celestial Charts.

In Book III No. 1, “Prélude non mesuré,” Díaz-Jerez is playing a prepared piano, tuned in such a way that it sounds like neither mean-tone temperament nor equal temperament, but rather like some of Harry Partch’s quarter-tone music. The deeper you get into these pieces, the less chance you have of getting out of his musical rabbit-hole. The last of them, “Nonlinear recurrences,” almost sounds like a giant, neurotic spider trying desperately to escape its own web. Even I can’t tell how he created that continuous ambient sound that permeates this piece from its midpoint on.

This is surely not music for everyone, but I sure dug it and hope you will, too!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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