Joachim Kühn Plays Ornette Coleman

ACT9763-cover

MELODIC ORNETTE COLEMAN / COLEMAN: Lonely Woman (2 vers.); Lost Thoughts; Immoriscible Most Capable of Being; Songworld; Physical Chemistry; Tears That Cry; Aggregate and Bound Together; Hidden Knowledge; Love is Not Generous, Sex Belongs to Woman. She and He is Who Fenn Love. Somewhere. Food Stamps on the Moon. KÜHN: Dedication to Ornette: The End of the World / Joachim Kühn, pno / ACT 9763-2

This is a very tricky album to review, because here pianist Joachim Kühn harmonizes music that was conceived with a fluid, moving harmonic base. As anyone familiar with Ornette Coleman’s music knows, his entire concept was based on throwing the standard tonal progressions of most Western music out the window. Each note in his compositions and solos had its own harmony, which was supposed to move and change constantly. It was the very basis of what he referred to as “harmolodics,” a system of music uniquely his own and one that the majority of musicians never quite grasped. (Even as late as the 1970s, when Ornette was on line with other jazz greats to meet President Richard Nixon, a keen fan of jazz, one of the other musicians said to his fellow behind him, “God, I hope he doesn’t think we all play as bad as Ornette!”)

But of course, this isn’t the first time Coleman’s music has been harmonized. The late, great “trad jazz” clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, who really enjoyed the music of both Coleman and Thelonious Monk, included a couple of their pieces on his late album, Ask Me Now!, and others have likewise approached the music with added harmonization.

Granted, this gives the music an entirely different feel, one that some Ornette lovers will not particularly care for. It’s almost a late-Romantic approach, albeit one with a genuine jazz beat, but if there is one thing it proves it is that Coleman knew what he was doing even if no one else did. The fact that this approach works, although in a way its composer never imagined, is a tribute to Coleman’s compositional skills. Lonely Woman, for instance, sounds almost like a blues mixed in with Baroque elements—much of this clearly Kühn’s own personal take on the piece, but fascinating nonetheless.

Moreover, because of his jazz bias and deep understanding of this music, Kühn keeps these performances from sounding too much like lounge music, although Lost Thoughts seemed to be a fairly conventional piece until the 1:06 mark, when Kühn suddenly took it into outer space. Interestingly, there’s a certain casual intimacy about this entire session, as if we were eavesdropping on Kühn as he played these pieces in his living room for his own edification, not as if we were attending a concert or a recital in which they were being presented as a formal program. Much of this is due to the microphone placement, which is up close and very dry, as if the pianist recorded them himself at home. In the strangely-titled Immoriscible Most Capable of Being and Songworld, for instance, Kühn almost seems to be feeling his way through the music, moving from bar to bar as if he were composing in his own head before playing them on the keyboard.

In Physical Chemistry, Kühn almost gives the music a Middle Eastern feel in his choice of harmonies, but by the time he reaches Tears That Cry I felt that he was starting to concentrate too much on structure and too little on a true jazz feel. He does inject some of this into Aggregate and Bound Together, however, which is also a fascinating performance.

There is, however, a price that Kühn pays for approaching these works as mental exercises to be expanded and made “melodic,” and that is that too often the pieces sound truncated even when they aren’t. Several of them appear to end in the middle of nowhere, something that would surely have not pleased Coleman. Granted, he occasionally recaptures a jazz feel, particularly in She and He is Who Fenn Love and Food Stamps on the Moon, but the oddly halting feel of the performances becomes a bit wearing after a while, since these are NOT his own compositions.

The CD does end, however, with a composition by Kühn, dedicated to Coleman and titled The End of the World, and here everything falls into place brilliantly.

A mixed review, then. The initial conception wasn’t a bad one, and some of the pieces work very well in this context, but overall I felt it was a soufflé that just didn’t rise properly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Alexander Quartet Plays Mozart

Alexander Mozart

APOTHEOSIS Vol. 1 / MOZART: String Quartets: No. 20  in D, “Hoffmeister”; Nos. 21-23,  “Prussian” / Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL 2016

In this 2-CD set, the Alexander Quartet revisits Mozart. This recording of his last four quartets is the first release of a planned series that will also include the Clarinet Quintet and other works.

I’m sure that I’m in the minority, but for me a little Mozart goes a long way. Except for the Requiem and parts of Don Giovanni, the works that move me the most are those that he wrote in minor keys, such as the 40th Symphony (Toscanini referred to it as “great tragedy”) and some of the piano concerti and string quintets. In his letters to his father, Mozart made it clear that he composed music to please people, not to expose his own feelings, but that within the numerous catchy tunes he included little twists of harmony to please the few cognoscenti who actually knew a thing or two about music.

That being said, the performers’ approach has as much to do with one’s appreciation of his best music as the scores themselves. Lightweight performances of the 40th Symphony abound; very few conductors, past or present, approached it as tragedy the way Toscanini and Furtwängler did, and only a handful of chamber groups approach these quartets as the Alexander String Quartet does. Without leaning heavily on rhetorical phrasing or unnecessary (and often intrusive) exaggerations of accent or volume, they bring out as much as can be expected in these works. And there are, as Mozart himself promised, little surprises within each of these works, including a surprisingly large number of minor-key passages in the “Hoffmeister” quartet, several more, in fact, than in many of his earlier quartets. Integrating these moments into the musical flow without over-emphasizing them, the Alexander Quartet plays them with a nice, natural flow. And, thank goodness, they do NOT use the anti-historical “straight tone” than afflicts far too many chamber groups nowadays, but rather use a fast, light vibrato which makes their sound fuller as well as more pleasing to the ear.

Indeed, their performances put me in mind of the justly famous ones made many moons ago by the legendary Amadeus Quartet. The Amadeus lacked Alexander’s manicured smoothness of tone and perfect integration; their lead violinist tended to be just a bit wiry; but somehow they managed to blend well enough, and the slight edginess of the first violin actually helped bring out some of the emotion in the music. Alexander’s first violinist, Zakarias Grafilo, plays so beautifully that he could easily be a standout concerto soloist if he so chose (well, technically speaking, so could the other three!), but their long experience as a unit (they’re now in their 38th year, if you can believe it) give them an advantage in reaching group consensus on how various works should be played, and this set is as much a monument to their expertise as their Beethoven and Bartók sets, which I have so highly praised in past reviews.

I think, if one were to search for one word to describe their approach, it would be “integrity,” and by this I don’t mean integrity of sound although that, too, is a key component of their work. They approach everything they play not with the kind of reverence that often makes works boring, but with a sense of adventure. They want to know what they can do with the music that will elevate its spirit and make their interpretations different from the norm, and more often than not, they succeed. I’ve been listening to and appreciating their recordings for more than a decade now, and I am more and more convinced that they are one of the five greatest string quartets in the world right now. (In case you’re wondering, the others I admire as much, for varying reasons, are the Pavel Haas Quartet, Quartetto Energie Nova, Belcea Quartet and Quatuor Mosaïques.)

That being said, I was a bit stunned to realize that the first of the “Prussian” quartets wasn’t nearly as interesting, harmonically or structurally, as the “Hoffmeister” quartet. For me, it’s pretty much in-one-ear-and-out-the-other Mozart, the kind of music that so many listeners love but I find formulaic and simplistic. Alexander does about as much as one can with it, but for me it’s just musical wallpaper, something to play for your snooty friends at your next Sunday brunch. Only the slow second movement has any real features of interest in it. Eric Bromberger’s liner notes say that “One of the surprises” about this quartet” is “how restrained it is.” But, as the notes also point out, Mozart was suffering a surprising and financially devastating downturn in acceptance at the time. Although the notes do not say so, this downturn began with the premieres of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, works that we now recognize as masterpieces, but which was considered in its day to be too long and rambling as well as insulting to the Ruling Class, the latter a costly mistake on Mozart’s part. Beginning in 1789, he found less and less of a market for his music, including the last three symphonies whose premieres were abandoned when no audience developed for them. Nor did it help when, in 1790, he premiered Così fan Tutte, an opera even more insulting to the upper classes, particularly their women, portraying them as easily-fooled dunces whereas the servant Despina is as sharp as a tack. You don’t mess with the rich and expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Thus the “King of Prussia” quartets were, in a way, a peace offering, a return to his earlier, more easily accessible style. The fact that they didn’t revive his sagging career is a double irony. The second of them is somewhat more interesting than the first (I particularly liked the passage with falling chromatics in the first movement, and there are some interesting touches in the slow movement of the third). But this is what you get when you’re writing to make a living and not purely for art’s sake. Sorry, folks, but I’ve got to call a spade a spade. Clearly, Mozart was a good enough composer that he could crank out works like this in his sleep, but craftsmanship does not equal real inspiration, and as much as the music is logical and pleasing it is not inspired.

As a result, I liked the performances better than the music itself. If, however, you are convinced that these are great works on an exalted level, these are clearly outstanding performances to get.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Eurotrash Revisited: The Academic Version

eurotrash httpclassicalvoiceamerica.org

Only God and the director know what opera this is supposed to be. Die Zauberflote? Romeo et Juliette? Star Wars II? You tell me. (httpclassicalvoiceamerica.org)

I wrote the article below for possible submission to Opera Quarterly, which said that they were soliciting such pieces for publication, but when I tried to create an account in order to submit it online, I discovered that in order to do so you MUST be a Professor of Music connected to a major, recognized university. In short, they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Only Professors count because, clearly, only they know what they’re talking about.

But I felt that the article was so good that it deserved perpetuation online, thus you lucky readers can peruse it below. This is an updated and greatly expanded version of one of my earliest posts, Regietheatre: The Scourge of Opera, which has received numerous comments, about half of them supportive and half of them lambasting me for not accepting ridiculous and oftimes perverted productions as “thought-provoking” or “advancing the art of opera.” I sincerely hope that the article below clarifies and solidifies my feelings on this matter. I tried, in the earlier article, to make it clear that I am in no way opposed to real innovation in modern productions so long as the plotlines, and in many cases the timelines, of the original works are kept intact, but it was obvious to me from the negative comments that most Regietheatre supporters really don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. They are so brainwashed into thinking that any and every idiotic change is not only acceptable but, in many ways, “needed” in order to “advance” opera in our time that they can’t see how ridiculous and/or perverted most of it is.

In any event, here is the complete article, and I do hope that, even if you disagree with me, you will now see my position more clearly.

Regietheatre: The Scourge of Opera

Although one could argue that the pioneering work of such composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner set the tone for opera as drama, such geniuses were sporadic and had only a short-term effect on the development of operatic staging and direction. By the early 1920s, when such outstanding singing-actors as Feodor Chaliapin and Michael Bohnen began making an impact on international audiences, there was a real movement afoot to revive opera as a presentation of sung drama rather than merely costumed recitals by famous singers. The Kroll Opera in the years 1924-30 is justly famous for its many innovative productions, specifically during the last three years of this period when Otto Klemperer oversaw not only the productions of new operas such as Hindemith’s Neue vom Tage (1929) and Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene in 1930, but also in his revivals of more standard repertoire. These productions were considered far ahead of their time and were sharply criticized. During the last gasp of the Weimar Republic, these protests reached such a high pitch that Heinz Tietjen, then general administrator of the Prussian state theatres, realized that the Kroll was losing money and could no longer be funded along with the other two operating Berlin opera houses. The Kroll Opera was closed down on 3 July 1931.[1]

I bring all this up by way of preface to this article to illustrate that innovative and imaginative, but not offensive, opera production has always been a bit of a tough sell, even in Germany where one might not expect it as in Italy, France and America where such a thing would be more understandable. Yet even in Arturo Toscanini’s La Scala Opera of the 1920s the fiery director was working to upgrade the state of opera in Italy as well. Several new operas, of which the two most famous were Boito’s Nerone (1924) and Puccini’s Turandot (1926) were scheduled alongside new and, for their time, different productions of more standard repertoire. The brilliant Swiss stage director and lighter Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) was even brought in to create an entirely new stage décor and movement for Wagner’s Siegfried.

Unfortunately a combination of events, circumstances and public tastes changed in the ensuing two decades to bring this sort of innovation not only to a halt but to virtually eradicate it. The most obvious obstructions to progress were the rise of Nazi and Fascist dictators in Europe, whose tastes were reactionary and who, by conquering nearly all of Western Europe, imposed their wills on operatic production as well as on developing musical tastes. More modern operas were as distasteful to them as were more modern concert and chamber works. The same aesthetic was pushed by the Communist dictator Stalin. But the real obstacle to innovation, realism, surrealism or just a more acceptably dramatic approach to opera was the segment of the public that patronized such an expensive and exotic form of theatre. When one reads of the “public” (meaning the wealthy opera patrons) outcry against such now-acknowledged major steps forward in operatic art as Pelléas et Mélisande, Salome and especially Elektra, one realizes just how much power they had to force things to remain status quo. At the end of the world premiere of Elektra, Richard Strauss reportedly turned to his audience after the last note of the opera had sounded and said, “Well, that was fun!” to which his shocked listeners just sat there, not even applauding. The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who Strauss went out of his way to hire as Klytaemnestra, told him afterwards that she considered the whole enterprise a waste of her time and that she had no intention of singing it again—which she didn’t. Although it is now considered a masterpiece, Elektra almost ruined Strauss’ career at the time. He responded to this by writing his most tonal and accessible opera, Der Rosenkavalier, as his next foray in the field, and thereafter never again retraced his steps back to his two early masterpieces.

Here, then, is the classic and, it seems, never-ending battle between populist taste and true art, and for the most part it is populist taste that wins. Even when, during the 1950s, we had a mini-Renaissance of innovative opera productions, both in Germany where Wieland Wagner was creating masterfully stark mis-en-scenes for his grandfather’s operas and even in Italy where such neglected masterpieces as Cherubini’s Gli Abencerragi (with Cerquetti) and Medea (with Callas), Spontini’s Fernando Cortez (with Tebaldi in 1951) and La Vestale (with Callas in 1954, a famous production attended by Toscanini), Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and even Boito’s Nerone were being revived, the audiences were less interested in the works than the Stars. For them, then as now, opera is not and never will be sung drama. It is musical entertainment, a showcase for Great Voices to sail through the music and belt out their beloved high notes on which they live or die. Nor did it matter that such great postwar singing actors as Callas, Gabriel Bacquier, Tito Gobbi, Jerome Hines, Thomas Stewart and Jon Vickers were trying their best to create viable theatre on the opera stages of the world. If they got the acting with the Great Voices they wanted to hear, fine, but they were just as happy to see performances with such musical philistines as Franco Corelli as long as they got the Tunes, the Great Voices and the High Notes—and they still are. Vickers once famously said that “Opera is art. If I want to be entertained, I’ll go to a dinner theatre to see Brigadoon,” but ironically most of his audience thought otherwise. In fact, they’d have been just as happy with Vickers singing Brigadoon as long as his high notes were in good operating order.

In a sense, then, something like Regietheater or, as it is referred to by that large segment of the populace who detest it as Eurotrash, almost had to develop as a reaction to what former Houston Opera general director David Gockley referred to as “brown-and-serve opera.” But something snapped inside the heads of operatic stage directors between the 1950s and the late 1970s, when this form of operatic presentation started to flower, and although there is no straight-line progression that one can point to as a timeline of its development, it is the purpose of this article to try to more clearly define that which seems indefinable: the underlying reason and purpose of these ghastly productions that now proliferate in opera houses around the world like psychotic nightmares.

My earlier paragraphs should make it clear that I am not opposed to all truly innovative productions, even today. I have a few in my DVD collection that I prize highly, such as Rolf Liebermann’s 1960s productions of Zar und Zimmermann, Der Freischütz and Wozzeck, which seem tame today but were quite innovative in their time, as well as such more modern ones as Robert Lepage’s “Las Vegas” Rake’s Progress, Dmitri Cherniakov’s Wozzeck, Pierre Audi’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Luca Roncini’s Moise et Pharaon (a.k.a. Mosé in Egitto) and Philippe Béziat’s crazy but extremely funny production of Rossini’s La pietra del paragone, but except for latter, which is experimental to the hilt but somehow works to enhance Rossini’s wacky sense of humor, most Regietheater enthusiasts would deem these very conservative productions. I can take occasionally extreme “gag” settings in comic operas, but far too many of the dramatic works nowadays are taken to ridiculous extremes. The most popular and frequent distortions presented onstage nowadays seem to be the following:

  1. Settings completely out of the timeline the opera is supposed to take place in. This is particularly damaging to any opera that is tied to a specific era and/or real historical figures, of which there are many, and even some operas that appear to be malleable in this respect often suffer when older customs (such as the droigt de seigneur practice in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro) are part of the plot structure.
  2. Settings of operas based on legends, Greek drama or other plots based in antiquity in such things as insane asyla, cocktail lounges, mousetraps, ersatz outer space settings, 19th-century libraries, or worst of all, some sort of updated Nowhere world with the characters dressed in business suits or tuxedos.
  3. A lot of nudity, cross-dressing, or perversions of religious symbols. Although I am not a believer in any form of Judao-Christian religion myself, I find these insulting and revolting, Such productions say much more about the psychosis of the director’s own mindset than they do about the work in question. You can also add to this list the presence of superfluous and childish objects to the stage set, such as Antonio Fogliani’s production of Guillaume Tell in which, for no rational reason, folding chairs are rushed onstage or removed at whim and Jemmy’s head is framed by two toilet seats hanging from the wall against which he stands waiting for William Tell to shoot the arrow.
  4. Overloaded choruses and extras on stage, all of whom are in motion most of the time. This also applies to productions where the singers themselves are forced to be moving at all times: dancing walking, strutting, waving their arms in the air, etc. Arm-waving in particular seems to be the new substitute for dramatic stage acting.

There are, of course, any number of other deviations and perversions added to modern productions, such as a recent Covent Garden version of Berlioz’ Les Troyens in which the Trojan Horse was represented by some gigantic Erector-set monstrosity that looks as if it were built by a mad scientist, or the earlier Metropolitan Opera production of Benvenuto Cellini in which a silent figure representing Berlioz wanders the stage throughout the performance, distracting the viewers. All of this is a far cry from, say, Britten’s Death in Venice, which I saw at the Metropolitan during its first run in 1974, where director Colin Graham made extremely imaginative and logical use of lighting effects, images projected on a background screen, and the voice of Apollo (sung by a countertenor) piped in from above rather than being a “real” onstage voice.

Yet this is exactly where the deviance occurs. What Britten and Graham created for Death in Venice works for that opera; it clearly would not work for a production of, say, Rigoletto or other standard stage works, yet these same principles are being transferred to operas where they clearly don’t belong. Moreover, although I can think of some innovative staging for Rigoletto myself, a radical update of the story wouldn’t work for many logical reasons, among them the fact that the Duke of Mantua’s actions are an extension and perversion of the droigt du seigneur tradition that no longer exists, the fact that you no longer have wandering assassins-for-hire roaming back alleys as Sparafucile did, or that not having Sparafucile and Maddalena inhabit a hut with thin walls that can be heard through or a crack in the wall that can be seen through damages the plot at that point. Too many modern directors take liberties that distort, damage or eliminate crucial plot devices which, far from illuminating the drama, actually make it obscure or even ludicrous.

One other influence that many people seem to forget is the 1988 film Aria, in which ten different directors “re-imagined” settings for ten famous operatic scenes and arias. None of them made sense, not even the use of an Elvis Presley imitator in Las Vegas singing “La donna è mobile,” not least because, in his real life, Presley was a very religious and moral person who would never think of using women the way the Duke of Mantua did. One of the very worst of these re-imaginings was that of Jean-Luc Godard, who set a scene from Lully’s Armide as the story of French maids “desperately trying to seduce burly bodybuilders lifting weights at the gym”[2]. Innovative and thought-provoking it may indeed have been, but the analogy doesn’t work in the context of the legend. But Godard didn’t care, and neither did the audiences for the film, and I am convinced that the movie’s success is one of the things that has led us to our current mess.

Somewhere along the line, then, we moved from real theatrical innovation to what I claim is mostly a projection of the directors’ psychoses and bad dreams. Seeing Wotan and Brünnhilde, for instance, as inmates in an insane asylum, with the latter feeling her way along a wall as she sings “Ho-yo-to-ho,” serves no purpose and does not illuminate Wagner’s music drama. Having Simon Boccanegra dressed as a woman and singing from inside a large wooden box has absolutely nothing to do with the character, his motives, or the dramatic situation. Seeing Papageno sing his opening aria standing in a huge bird cage, wearing a dark suit covered in bird poop, has nothing to do with the character or the plot. To use a popular colloquial phrase, these are giant Nothingburgers. More often than not, if you couldn’t hear the music to go along with them, you couldn’t possibly tell what the opera is supposed to be from the images.

And this, I argue, is the difference between real innovation—Appia’s Die Walküre production, the 1920s Kroll Opera and 1950s Bayreuth productions, Liebermann, and even Herbert von Karajan’s imaginative and interesting 1987 Salzburg Don Giovanni—and Regietheater. One side is trying things that enhance what the composer and librettist created. The other is primarily concerned with perversion, overcrowding of the stage space, and psychological shock values, none of which enhances the theatrical experience. In my view, and that of millions of other operagoers, Regietheater does not “make you think” about what the opera is about. On the contrary, it is largely a mockery of the original creators’ vision, designed to make you denigrate what you are seeing as some sort of sick, unenlightened distortion of reality, and this serves no useful purpose. I believe that if you took a real poll of every audience member of every Regietheater production, you would find that the majority hate what they see.

But then, we must put at least part of the blame on the majority of audiences who still want none but the older, tonal operas sung by Great Voices with Lots of High Notes. When you consider the surprisingly large number of great, modern, dramatic operas (and I define “great” by the quality of the music as well as the quality of the libretto) that are either completely ignored or rarely staged, going all the way back to Cherubini and Spontini but also including Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Szymanowski’s Krol Roger, Schoeck’s Penthesilea, Orff’s Gisei – Der Opfer, Martin’s Le Vin Herbé, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, the charming one-act operas of Ravel (when was the last time you saw a production of L’Enfant des Sortiléges?) or Martinů’s Ariane, all of which could clearly withstand good, imaginative modern staging, it’s small wonder that modern directors choose to pervert older classics. They’re all that “sells” to the staid, reactionary opera audiences. This is, then, not just a two-pronged but a multi-pronged dilemma, one that an imaginative opera company director could easily remedy. I’ve been told over and over again by staid, hardcore operagoers that no audiences would attend such productions, but I counter that they don’t really know this since no one has tried it.

We must also factor in that many opera lovers have no interest in instrumental music, and the few that do confine their interest to concertos and symphonies. I’ve yet to meet more than one opera lover who has an interest in chamber music. In addition, most opera lovers cannot read music and, in fact, many hold this up as a badge of honor. They say they’re proud to not read music because it interferes with their “appreciation” of sung drama. This means that most of them can’t tell if a performance is properly sung and/or conducted; but not knowing music means that they can’t tell the difference between good modern operas and poor ones, and the general directors of opera houses know this. That is why, when they do program anything different or innovative, they either go with what they think will be accessible enough to appeal to their musically ignorant audience (meaning music that is simpler in construction but not necessarily good) or whatever modern composer has the most power publicity and belongs to a powerful agency. This way, they can claim to be giving their audiences non-traditional operas but decry that the house is empty when they are performed—which they often are. This is also the reason why opera audiences get so much third-rate Handel, Rossini and Donizetti, or 18th-century pastiches like The Enchanted Island. It pleases the base, sells tickets and still allows Regietheater garbage to ruin the production anyway while putting fannies in the seats.

In the meantime, to all of you Regietheater directors who use the sick and perverted devices described above, do us all a big favor. Write you own operas and apply those techniques to them. Let’s see how well your ideas fly once they’re no longer tied to established works by name composers.

If the reader would like to know what real operatic drama is, I would refer him or her to a YouTube video of Magda Olivero, Giuseppe Campora and Jerome Hines performing a scene from Boito’s Mefistofele in 1976.[3] There you have only the three artists on a bare stage, but their movements, acting and the dramatic interpretation of the words create all the drama you need. Not one Regietheater director can equal this, let alone top it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kroll_Opera_House

[2] https://www.moviefone.com/movie/aria/9104/main/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfwRE19z3_M

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus”

Messiaen cover

WP 2019 - 2MESSIAEN: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus / Martin Helmchen, pno / Alpha 423

Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes Upon the Infant Jesus) is his longest piano work, his most mystical and also his most religious. Although I normally shy away from religious music as a rule, this work, like J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion, can be enjoyed without the religiosity as an extended meditation on the spirit, which even Deists, Buddhists and Taoists can relate to.

I do, however, disagree with Martin Helmchen when he says that “this masterpiece seems to come from no traditional genre, has no previous model at all in the piano literature [and] stands alone as a highpoint, a pinnacle of 20th century piano music.” An outstanding and mystical piano suite it may be, but it’s not true that it “has no previous model.” There are several similarities between it and Charles Koechlin’s Les heures Persanes (The Persian Hours) of 1913-19, mixed in with a bit of Schoenberg and Messiaen’s own system of altered chord positions. Both works employ a system whereby the melodic line is “led” by the harmonic progression rather than vice-versa, as is the case in Messiaen’s orchestral music. This aesthetic was largely misunderstood and unappreciated by many American critics and listeners even through the 1960s, when a Stereo Review critic spent three pages lambasting the composer for the ugliness and incomprehensibility of his music, but today we hear it differently thanks to such composers as György Ligeti who took this aesthetic one step further.

Which is not to say that the music is accessible to many listeners; on the contrary, its complex form still baffles many who approach it unless one is somewhat attuned to Messiaen’s aesthetic. It may also startle those who expect a continuous stream of soft, amorphous sounds to hear such an episode as No. 3, L’échange, with its pounding chords and aggressive volume, but Messiaen was always a composer who enjoyed contrasts, and just because this is ostensibly a religious work does not mean that he would abandon that course.

One also hears the composer playing with rhythm in an unusual manner, i.e. in No. 4, Regard de la Vierge. This, too, can be related to Koechlin’s work which was intended to be mystical but not necessarily religious, which is why I say that the music can be appreciated by non-Christians. It is a reflection not of Jesus as a character so much as a reflection of Messiaen’s spiritual and emotional reaction to Jesus as a wholly spiritual character, which can be interpreted as the offspring of the God that created our Universe. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this interpretation of Messiaen’s music applies in part to everything he wrote, although since this is a piano suite and not an orchestral or organ work his response was generally more intimate. I’ve said several times that I admire the composer’s orchestral and piano pieces but not necessarily his organ works, where my reaction is that of a dark, almost sinister and clearly uncomfortable aesthetic. I’m sure that, were he still alive, he would vehemently disagree with me, but that’s my reaction and I can’t help it. I’m very sensitive to the mood of a piece as well as its structure. And here I completely agree with Helmchen when he says that

While listening, I for one find it extremely difficult to maintain a critical distance to the music’s programme. When we do not actively resist, Messiaen takes us directly into a state of contemplation and meditation. He sends us on a cosmic journey, whose goal is to encounter and worship God. The music’s artistic value would be just as great without any programmatic aim.

This very personal response to Messiaen’s goal informs Helmchen’s performance. One is much less aware of his technical prowess as a pianist as one is of his complete absorption of the music into his fingers. He does not so much “perform” the music as he draws it out of the keyboard, like the magician who suddenly produces soft, floating silk scarves from his sleeves. In the louder, more aggressive pieces, Messiaen seemed to me to be channeling the vast, unlimited power of the Universe. Clearly, no infant, Jesus or otherwise, had this kind of power at such an early stage of development, but the Universe clearly does. The very long (11-minute) Par lui tout a été fait, despite a few moments of respite, is almost violent in its description of unlimited power, and in a piece like this Messiaen almost sounds a bit like Sorabji, another composer whose work was often ignored, negatively criticized and misunderstood. Helmchen has the full measure of this long, complex score, however, and so is able to make it all coherent even in its wildest and most outré manifestations, such as No. 13, Noël, which sounds like a snippet from Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. Again, to quote Helmchen,

While listening to the whole cycle in one go (something I’d urge every listener to do) there is an incomparable sense that one’s perception of time is slowly altering. To endure slowness, stillness, is a huge challenge for interpreters and listeners alike – as it is for everyone in the world today! Yet in this stillness there is an intensely concentrated experience of the moment (No.9), the most extreme inwardness (No.19), and an infinite variety of colours (No.16).

There are, of course, a few other outstanding recordings of this suite available, the most famous being those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Teldec, Steven Osborne, who studied the piece with Messiaen’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, on Hyperion, and Loriod herself on Warner Classics. All are outstanding, but for me, personally, Helmchen’s recording is right up there with them. In fact, I rather like his combination of mysticism and no-nonsense directness even a bit more than Aimard, who seems to be everyone else’s first choice. Having been raised on pianists who viewed music as architecture, I found myself agreeing with Helmchen’s approach to every phrase in each piece. He pulls the work’s huge, sprawling structure together brilliantly, and for me hearing it evolve with such clarity was as important as his approach to the mystical elements. Of course, your reaction may vary, but I think I’ve given you enough of a description of what Helmchen does here to allow you to decide for yourself. Although I am a critic with very strong feelings and opinions about certain works and particular interpretations, I know from personal experience that everyone hears music differently and has different emotional and intellectual reactions. Thus all I can do is to tell you how the music and the performance struck me and what I liked or didn’t like about it. There is, clearly, a little more of a German than a French approach to several of these pieces, meaning one geared more towards a steady pulse and continuous flow rather than a looser, more flexible rhythm with a great deal of rubato, but that’s exactly why I like it. Too much “butterscotch and mysticism,” as one critic cited in a review of this work, leads not to an appreciation of what Messiaen created but to an overly-flowery view of the music. Helmchen is mystical when he needs to be but avoids sentimentality and floweriness, which is much more to my taste.

Thus I say, go for it. I think you’ll be alternately moved and thrilled.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Joël Bons’ Fantastic “Nomaden”

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WP 2019 - 2BONS: Nomaden, a richly varied mosaic in 38 movements for cello and large intercultural ensemble / Jean-Guilhen Queyras, cel; Atlas Ensemble; Ed Spanjaard, cond / Bis SACD-2073

Fasten your seat belts, folks: this is something completely different, a suite in 38 short parts for solo cello and a “large intercultural ensemble,” the latter sporting such instruments as tabla, tar, erhu, shakuhachi, duduk and sitar, sort of a combination of the Silk Road and the Pacific Orient. Composer Joël Bons describes this work as “like a journey during which the protagonist – cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras – ‘meets’ musicians from different traditions and enters into dialogue with them. It is not a cello concerto as such, but rather a concertante work for cello and soloists from other cultures.”

It is also a brilliantly conceived piece of music, with the cello playing both lyrical passages and short, querulous phrases. You might call it an ear-opening experience that combines the lyrical with the dramatically effective. It is most certainly a different kind of animal, yet emotionally moving as well as superbly crafted. It was written for Jean-Guilhen Queyras, the soloist here, and the Atlas Ensemble, which Bons himself founded in 2002 of musicians from China, Japan, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The piece was given the Grawerneyer Award (about as prestigious as the Scherman-Peabody Award that this blog has received) in 2019.

Some of the music fits into the category of “ambient” but does not linger in that style. In the eighth piece, titled “Erhungi,” the solo cellist plays rapid figures against the bright backdrop of the ensemble with a jazzy swagger that takes one by surprise while the tenth piece, titled “Duel,” has a decidedly Stravinskian feel to it. Due to the nature of the ensemble, which contains only three Western string instruments (one each violin, viola and bass) but a preponderance of bright-timbred Oriental and Middle Eastern ones as well as a group of woodwinds (Flute, piccolo, English horn, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and alto recorder) and percussion, the timbre is exceptionally brilliant without a shred of Romantic warmth, which is exactly what Bons was after. The full orchestra only plays all together on rare occasions, as in the closing moments of the lively 11th piece, “Azertet”; most of the time, they play in small sections. Sometimes the exotic instruments also get short solos to play, which adds to the color (one of the longest being part 18 for the erhu). All in all, it’s a fascinating piece, due in no small measure to the fact that Bons is really a composer and not just a compiler of “effects” as so many of his modern classical brethren are.

Part 15, apparently titled “13/8” because that’s the time signature, has a combined Middle Eastern and jazz feel to it, not unlike some of the pioneering Middle Eastern-jazz fusion pieces of the underrated Rabih Abou-Khalil (composer of the now-famous Arabian Waltz and many other, even more interesting, works). In part 21, enigmatically titled “M,” Bons combines a surprisingly catchy theme with his bevy of exotic instruments and percussion, which leads without a break into “Sarangi” with its combination Eastern-jazz rhythms.

Yet in giving somewhat technical descriptions of these various portions of the suite one can miss the larger picture. I found it best to just sit back, relax, and let the whole piece run its course without trying too hard to be analytical. Although one can certainly do so, it serves little purpose and, I feel, interferes with one’s enjoyment of the music as a whole. For instance: even though the 25th section, “Sho, almost sounds like a piece from George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique and part 37, “Shur-Segah” sounds like a snippet of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, pointing this out misses the point that they are important links between what comes before and what follows. One can surely enjoy this music without being overly technical in describing it. There is yet another attractive, catchy melodic line in “Walkwalk” (No. 27) that Bons uses as the basis for a fugue; yet another detail that delights and entices the listener while still being part of the complete suite, just as one can hear one of the exotic instruments in this movement almost being like an American banjo. There is a lot of humor, albeit sometimes subtle, in this music along with the serious elements, such as the “Salsa” heard in part 31.

Nomaden is clearly one of the oddest, most eclectic yet ultimately fun modern pieces I’ve heard in some months, and the recorded sound is terrific. Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Wilhelmina Smith Plays Salonen & Saariaho

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SALONEN: YTA III. knock, breathe, shine. Sarabande per un coyote. COLOMBI: Chiacona. SAARIAHO: Dreaming Chaconne. Petals. Sept papillons. Spins and Spells / Wilhelmina Smith, cel / Ondine ODE 1294

 Cellist Wilhelmina Smith prefers to walk “the road not taken” by most of her fellows. She is a strong champion of modern cello works, which probably stems from her having worked as guest first cello in the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the adventurous conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2000. Winner of the 1997 international Leonard Rose Competition, she was also praised by the late Henri Dutilleux as “outstanding” in her performance of his solo cello piece, and also worked with Salonen in 2010 to play his cello concerto. Here, she gives us solo works by both Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, with ancient composer Giuseppe Columbi’s Chiacona tossed in for contrast because Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne is based on it.

Alas, I was not provided a booklet to download with this CD, so I can’t tell you much about the origin or gestation of these works, but as in the case of all music the scores speak for themselves. YTA III opens with the cello playing very high up in its range, and although by the 1:30 mark it seems to devolve into effects (spiccato, ghostly portamento, etc.), it is a riveting piece to say the least. Somehow or other, Salonen manages to tie all of it together to make a coherent, if strange, musical statement, and there is no question that Smith’s commitment to the score, along with her stunning technique, are part of what impresses the listener. In short, it’s a stunning piece if not necessarily a likeable one.

The tripartite knock, breathe, shine is no less challenging technically but, to my ears, rather more coherent as musical structure. A series of sharply-struck chords (mostly in C) alternate with angular, choppy single notes in the first section, but the music has more of a “line” to it and the ear picks up on the development section much easier. The next section, breathe, is the slow movement, and here Salonen does indeed create a surprisingly lovely melodic line, which Smith plays with great affection and outstanding arco bowing. In shine, the music assumes a sort of midway point between lyricism, with yet another excellent melodic line, and edgy effects, but they are tied into the overall fabric of the music with much better results. This is clearly an outstanding piece, one that many great cellists should take up for their recitals.

Sarabande per un coyote begins with the cellist strumming chords on her instrument, as if it were a huge guitar, which then leads into bowed passages including chords as if in a solo cello sonata. Smith then plays the Colombi Chiacona in that nauseating, ahistoric straight tone that too many modern musicians are addicted to. (I doubt that they’re ever learn they are wrong; the academic mafia has convinced them that this is correct styling.) Happily, we then get Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne, a sort of buzz-effect piece that sounds like a swarm of locusts. I wasn’t much impressed. And, alas, Petals is the same kind of music, all cheap effects with no substance.

The multi-movement Papillons began the same way (apparently, Saariaho is really hung up on this style of writing), but to my ears it had more interest as a composition because it actually went somewhere. In the third piece, “Calmo, con tristezza,” the music actually becomes somewhat more musical; I liked this one very much.

Truthfully, I’ve come to realize that a lot of modern music (but certainly not all) is geared towards shock value and has very little to do with actual musical principles. Even such formerly avant-garde composers as Stravinsky, Ligeti and Zimmermann would probably be quite shocked by a lot of this material, but if this is your thing, this CD will certainly satisfy you. As for me, I really liked Salonen’s knock, breathe, shine and a couple of the Papillons, and Smith is unquestionably a great cellist.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jason Palmer’s 2-CD Set a Winner

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WP 2019 - 2RHYME AND REASON / PALMER: Herbs in a Glass. Rhyme and Reason. Blue Grotto. Sadhana. The Hampton Inn (for Alan). Mark’s Place. Waltz for Diana. Kalispel Bay / Jason Palmer, tpt; Mark Turner, t-sax; Matt Brewer, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm / Giant Step Arts (no number) (live: Jazz Gallery, New York, June 7-8, 2018)

This splendid double-CD set, scheduled for release on March 1, was produced by a new non-profit label begun by photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz, Giant Step Arts. The label not only records artists but commissions new works and presents premiere performances, provides the artists with 800 physical CDs as well as digital downloads to sell directly. The artists thus have complete control of their music and own their own masters while Giant Step does most of the work for you, including PR support for the recordings including promo photos and, if required, videos.

I’ve seen one review of this album online, the first sentence of which I had to read twice because I couldn’t believe my eyes: “Jazz albums without chordal instruments can sometimes sound arid.” Say what?!? Did the classic Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet sound arid to you? Or Ornette Coleman’s original group? They didn’t sound that way to me, and neither does Palmer’s wonderful quartet. And oh, by the way, a double bass can indeed play chords!

Nor is the music on this wonderful set arid. Palmer, who has played with Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith and Roy Hargrove (as well as with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), plays in a crisp, angular style that is surprisingly sparse. Indeed, his style reminds me, in a way, of a modern Bix Beiderbecke; as Eddie Condon once said of Bix, his tone sounds like “bullets hitting a bell.” In his improvisations, he makes every note count. Nothing sounds superfluous; everything fits together as if the music he played were fully scored, not improvised.

Moreover, my allusion earlier to the Ornette Coleman Quartet is particularly apt in the case of his bassist, Matt Brewer, who plays in a fulsome style, continually shifting the underlying harmony by implying chords even if they are not fully fleshed out. It’s the sort of thing that Charlie Haden did so well with Ornette. Kendrick Scott is the type of drummer who is also constantly shifting the beat via his stress rhythms, yet who also keeps perfect time. And tenor saxist Mark Turner is very fine, too, albeit more adventurous in terms of the notes he selects and less allied to the structure of each piece.

The result in fast numbers, such as the opening Herbs in a Glass, is of a continuous whirl of music in which Brewer is both harmonic underpinning and principal timekeeper, leading Palmer and Turner through the labyrinth of the tune’s structure while Scott loosens and breaks up the rhythm. Their music is more tonal and less free than Coleman’s but no less exciting or intriguing. Rhyme and Reason opens with an extended a cappella solo by Palmer before being joined by the rest of the quartet, with a double-time flurry of notes at the 2:25 mark. Once again, the excellent structure of Palmer’s composition is what draws the listener inward; the solos are what keep one listening. The leader’s extended solo is an object-lesson on how to construct a pair of choruses and still retain a coherent narrative, but Turner is also very fine on this one in his own way. Brewer also has a solo on this one, and it’s very fine.

Blue Grotto has an asymmetric beat, opening with a bass solo before Palmer and Turner enter to play the odd melody. Although there is a definite underlying structure here, the piece sounds more reduced to essentials and improvised as it moves from section to section. There’s a nice, intricate three-way conversation between the two horns and the bassist at the 2:25 mark that lasts for a while, and the rhythm becomes quite complex at 4:33 into the piece. Palmer also plays an extended solo introduction to Sadhana, which he describes as a piece based on “routine spiritual practice and the routine surrendering of the ego through activities such as meditation, yoga, chanting or prayer.” Yet it’s a surprisingly lively piece, with a bright uptempo line and an almost Coleman-like solo from Turner. The fast, continually churning rhythm moves it like greased lightning. The leader’s solo skips about like a lamb in a field on a bright spring morning and Scott’s drum solo continues to dissect the oddly-spaced 6/8 beat in numerous small ways.

On The Hampton Inn it is the drummer who introduces the song and the band, giving it a strong calypso feel. The strong, churning rhythm continues throughout, with Palmer’s solo being unusually exploratory, going outside the tune’s structure with impunity. By contrast, on this one, it is Turner who is more circumspect, adhering closer to the melodic line with great imagination. Mark’s Place is a reference to Mark Turner’s song Jacky’s Place. The notes indicate that Palmer has transposed Turner’s chords up a fifth and changed the original 5/4 pulse to 6/4. Again it is Brewer who introduces the song, joined at 2:18 by the drums and then, at 2:42, by the horns. It’s a light, airy song with an almost minimal melodic structure. When Palmer enters, he plays an intriguing sequence of rapid triplet and double-time figures interspersed with upward rips into his top register. Scott also has an extended and intricate solo on this one.

The lovely Waltz for Diana is a nod to Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Dream of the Old. Although a waltz, the stress beats move around like blinking lights on a Christmas tree, yet the band is able to keep up with all of them. The leader manages to throw in a quite from My Favorite Things in the midst of his solo. Brewer then plays a very intriguing improvised duet with Turner, who plays one of his finest solos here. The finale, Kalispel Bay, is a jaunty tune written by Palmer in an hour on—of all things—a ukulele! It’s a peppy tune but not one of his tightest musical structures, yet the soloists and rhythm section respond well to it, Turner in particular with what is, for me, his most tightly-constructed solo.

I’m not quite prepared to put Jason Palmer on as high a pedestal as Clifford Brown, but as musical constructionists go, he is clearly one of the greatest I’ve heard in the past half-century. No two ways about it, this is a stunning album which bears repeated and careful listening.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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