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

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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)

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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!”

OOOOOOHHHHHH!

“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!”

HOLY CRAP! IT’S THE BANBURY MACHINE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!

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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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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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