A Mildred Bailey Retrospective

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MILDRED BAILEY: THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR LADY / CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair. What Kind O’ Man is You? Georgia on My Mind. Lazy Bones. Small Fry. CARTER-MILLS: Blues in My Heart. RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. CLARKSON-VAN STEEDEN: Home (When Shadows Fall). MILHANE-ROBISON: Harlem Lullaby. BERLIN: Heat Wave. I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. MEYER-LOESSER: Junk Man. LIVINGSTON-SYMES-NEIBURG: Ol’ Pappy. SPIKES-SPIKES-BENJAMIN: Someday Sweetheart. WALLER-RAZAF: Willow Tree. Honeysuckle Rose. WALLER-WILLIAMS; Squeeze Me. AUSTIN-HUNTER: Downhearted Blues. JOHNSON-RAZAF: A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. YOUMANS-ELISCU-ROSE: More Than You Know. BROWN-FREED: Smoke Dreams. AGER-SCHWARTZ-WEVER: Trust in Me. McHUGH-ADAMSON: Where Are You? REVEL-GORDON: Never in a Million Years. There’s a Lull in My Life. JOHNSTON-BURKE: The Moon Got in My Eyes. HANIGHEN-MERCER: Bob White. Weekend of a Private Secretary. RAINGER-ROBIN: Thanks for the Memory. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN-SCHWAB: Lover, Come Back to Me. CAHN-CHAPLIN: Please Be Kind. SAMPSON-GOODMAN-PARISH: Don’t Be That Way. LANE-LOESSER: Says My Heart. ELLINGTON-MILLS-NEMO: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. BURNETT-NORTON: My Melancholy Baby. SHILKRET-AUSTIN: The Lonesome Road. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: So Help Me if I Don’t Love You. Darn That Dream. Peace, Brother! DEBUSSY-CLINTON: My Reverie. ROBISON-HILL: Old Folks. AILVER-HEYMAN-COSLOW: Have You Forgotten So Soon? HANDY: St, Louis Blues. PORTER: Begin the Beguine. OLIVER-YOUNG: ‘Tain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That Cha Do it. C. WILLIAMS: Gulf Coast Blues. COLUMBO-GASKILL-ROBIN: Prisoner of Love. NEMO: Don’t Take Your Love From Me. WARREN-KOEHLER: Me and the Blues. DONALDSON: At Sundown. SIMONS-MARKS: All of Me / Mildred Bailey, voc; various accompaniments including Eddie Lang, Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra, Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra, Matty Malneck, Benny Goodman & his Orchestra, Mildred Bailey & her Swing Band/Alley Cats/Oxford Greys, Red Norvo & his Orchestra, John Kirby Sextet, Alec Wilder, Ellis Larkins & his Orchestra, Julian Work & his Orchestra / Retrospective RTS-4344

This set, though only two CDs, is so jam-packed with interesting and often obscure material that even I only have 18 of the 52 tracks presented here, and I’m a huge Mildred Bailey fan and collector. I purposely did not list all the individual musicians in each and every group she sings with because, if I did, the header would stretch out twice as long as what you see above, but among the many great and famous jazz musicians she sings with are Hank d’Amico, Herbie Haymer, Andy Secrest, Charlie Margulis, Bill Rank, Bunny Berigan, the Dorsey brothers, Mannie Klein, Dick McDonough, Coleman Hawkins (hiding in a February 1934 session credited to “Benny Goodman & his Orchestra”), Chris Griffin, Chu Berry, Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster (renamed “Francis Love”), Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Roy Eldridge, Zutty Singleton, Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Herschel Evans, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Jerry Jerome, George Wettling, Charlie Shavers, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle and Mary Lou Williams.

The brief but mostly accurate and informative liner notes cover some of the problems that beset Bailey through her up-and-down professional career. The worst of these were her appearance, not only fat but short and dumpy like a walking bowling ball and not pretty at all, and her vile, vicious temperament. Her unusual complexion came from the fact that she was half American Indian, a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, and had grown up on their Reservation in Idaho. She hid her temper most of the time from her fans, but music industry insiders were only too aware that Mildred was a handful and often wanted nothing to do with her. Indeed, it was her temperament that marked her as vastly different from the popular singer she envied the most, Kate Smith, who was also obese, but who had a wonderful personality as well as a prettier face—and she sang patriotic songs and love ballads, material that Bailey wouldn’t have done in a million years.

Yet there were two other factors that kept her from gaining widespread popularity. One was that she performed often, not only on records but also on the radio, with black artists. While it was perfectly OK for certain white male bandleaders to have black musicians in their orchestras, it was an entirely different thing for a white woman of the 1930s and early ‘40s to do so. Even into the late 1950s, when Nat King Cole had white female singers like Judy Garland and June Christy on his TV show, embraced them, held their hand and sang with them, he raised hackles with the mostly white viewers which led to the show being canceled. The other unspoken reason was, during the period 1940-42, Mildred made quite a few recordings with complex, semi-classical arrangements by Alec Wilder and Mitch Miller, both of whom adored her. Only one of those records, Don’t Take Your Love From Me, is presented in this collection, but they alienated her with jazz fans who were her largest fan base. Jazz impresario John Hammond, who declared her “one of the three or four greatest singers in jazz,” openly criticized these recordings, which brought down one of Mildred’s towering rages on his head. Add those two factors to her volatile personality and odd looks, and you have a recipe for commercial failure.

Even Paul Whiteman, who indeed hired her for his famous orchestra in 1929, was put off by her looks. Lured by Al Rinker, one of Whiteman’s “Rhythm Boys,” to drop in and enjoy an informal musical soiree with food and drink, Al told Paul that he just had to hear his sister Mildred sing because she was so terrific, “much better than me.” One look at her and Whiteman said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The impromptu audition occurred while Whiteman was in the kitchen, pouring himself another drink and helping himself to some of Mildred’s fried chicken. Al pulled his sister over, sat down at the piano and began playing while she sang. Whiteman reportedly almost choked on the chicken, spit out a piece and said, “Who the hell is that?” He went back into the living room and was dumbfounded to learn that it was the small, dumpy, rotund woman he had not wanted to hear. He immediately hired her, but didn’t let her record with the band for two years. Her only record before that was a single side from 1929 with a pickup group led by guitarist Eddie Lang, What Kind O’ Man is You? (CD 1, track 2).

As a nod to her popular title as “the Rockin’ Chair lady,” the first disc starts off with the 1937 Vocalion recording of this song with “her” orchestra (actually husband Red Norvo’s band). This, believe it or not, is a version I hadn’t heard before. Her original hit record of the tune was made six years earlier with Whiteman, but the arrangement on that one is rather sappy while this one swings. (The other version I’ve heard is a live radio broadcast performance from the 1940s.) Her phrasing here is bluesier than on either of those other two recordings, and in the line “send me sweet chariot” she pulls back on the beat while in the line “judgment day is here she pushes it forward. In the second chorus, she bends notes, adds flatted thirds and other interesting touches that mark her as an improvising singer and not just a big band “songbird.”

The 1929 recording of What Kind O’ Man Are You? opens with an excellent solo by Andy Secrest, one of the best Bix Beiderbecke imitators of that time, and later has a nice alto sax half-chorus by Charles Strickfadden. What’s interesting about this track is that her voice has more of a noticeable vibrato in it that was minimized by 1934. Both Bailey and Billie Holiday had fairly narrow vocal ranges, a little over an an octave, so they often had to transpose uncomfortable passages to fit their tessitura. The difference was that Holiday often transposed down while Bailey, a high soprano, normally transposed upward. She could touch a high C, but since her voice was very light and sweet it doesn’t always register that way in listening to her. The 1931 Blues in My Heart with the Casa Loma Orchestra is a “torch” song, also showing Mildred singing with a bit more vibrato, which she elevates by emulating Louis Armstrong in her phrasing. The Whiteman recording of When It’s Sleepy Time Down South is one of his less sappy arrangements for her though it does feature a pretty awful vocal group called The Romancers in addition to Mildred. One thing I noted about this collection is that the producers have included a lot of ballads, which most of the time I shy away from, but this is a British production and the Brits love them some ballads. Georgia on My Mind and Home (When Shadows Fall) are sung with such a sappy style, including a great deal of portamento that Bailey normally shied away from, that I was almost embarrassed for her. These are not good recordings. I also could have lived without such racist “darky” songs as Harlem Lullaby. Mildred didn’t have a racist bone in her body, and neither did the Boswell Sisters, yet both were forced to record a few songs like this because they were popular at the time and sold records. A good Jimmy Dorsey clarinet chorus saves the record, but it’s not enough to warrant inclusion.

Lazy Bones could be interpreted as the same sort of song, but no specific reference is made to the race of “lazy bones” and I’ve known several white Southerners, even in the late 1960s, whose disposition was exactly the same as the protagonist of these lyrics. Also, Bailey sings this with more swing and less goop. The second track with the Casa Loma band, Heat Wave, is far jazzier than the first in both arrangement and performance. This marks the real beginning of Bailey’s mature swing style. The February 1934 Goodman session is really just a nonet featuring two trumpets (Mannie Klein and Charlie Margulis), one trombone (Sonny Lee), Goodman, Hawkins, pianist Arthur Schutt, guitarist Dick McDonough, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Gene Krupa. Junk Man is one of those “get even” songs where the woman threatens to kill her two-timing man, and Bailey sings it in a straightforward manner, while Ol’ Pappy is a medium-tempo swinger that opens with an excellent Goodman clarinet chorus and includes a nice bridge by Hawk. The lyrics are pretty stupid but Bailey swings the tune nicely. Again, it’s a Southern song with no racial stereotypes. Hawk also gets a half-chorus solo and a good one (at this time he was still starring with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra); McDonough plays the middle, and the band rides it out. Someday, Sweetheart is a wonderful record on which she is accompanied only by trumpeter Chris Griffin, tenor saxist Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, McDonough, Bernstein and drummer Eddie Dougherty. Finally, we’re getting someplace!

Next up is the famous “Mildred Bailey & her Alley Cats” session of December 1935, the cats being Bunny Berigan, Johnny Hodges, Teddy Wilson and bassist Grachan Moncur. The songs are Willow Tree, Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me and Downhearted Blues, each performance a gem. Then at long last we reach Mildred’s stint with hubby Red Norvo’s band, starting with her classic recording of James P. Johnson’s surprise hit of 1936, A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. She just sings one chorus, but it’s so wonderful you can’t help smiling, and Eddie Sauter’s beautifully understated arrangement includes a middle section in the opening chorus where the bass and guitar rise and fall in synchronization with the trumpets’ top line. Immediately following this track is a “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” recording where the band consists of Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster, Wilson, Dave Barbour, John Kirby and Cozy Cole. The tune is More Than You Know and her delivery is equally subtle as that of Helen Forrest’s famous recording with Benny Goodman but far jazzier in phrasing. Sauter reportedly wrote the harmonically complex and daunting introduction to Smoke Dreams because he was ticked off at Mildred, but she was such a good musician that she got it right on the first run-through. Needless to say, this record was a musicians’ favorite but went nowhere commercially while its companion, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, hit #11 on the pop charts.

The next two “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” sessions have vastly different lineups, the first being a pickup band with Roy Eldridge, Scoops Carey, Herbie Haymer and Zutty Singleton, the second being Norvo’s full orchestra. Despite the fact that Trust in Me and Where Are You? are ballads, Bailey sings them in a much more straightforward style than she would have three years earlier, with fine jazz phrasing and no portamento. Haymer takes a nice solo in the first title; the second, featuring a wonderful Eldridge chorus, was a #5 hit. Both Never in a Million Years and There’s a Lull in My Life are pretty awful songs by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon, lifted above the scrap-heap only by Bailey’s delivery and nice xylophone solos by Norvo. Though not a great song, The Moon Got in My Eyes almost sounds like a masterpiece by comparison. On this one Bailey is accompanied by five members of the Count Basie band (Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans and the rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones) as well as clarinetist Edmond Hall, who is scarcely heard at all.

CD 2 starts with the flip side from the same session, It’s the Natural Thing to Do, a far better song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, and here Hall gets a half-chorus solo, followed by Herschel Evans in the second half. A much better record. Hubby Norvo’s band returns for Bob White under Mildred’s name, and on this one lyricist Johnny Mercer does the whistling. This is followed by what I feel is her best ballad recording, Bob Hope’s theme song Thanks for the Memory. She perfectly captures the irony of the lyrics while phrasing in a jazzy style. Chu Berry takes the tenor solo, nicely underpinned by the rhythm section of Wilson, Allan Reuss, bassist Pete Peterson and drummer Dave Tough. Lover Come Back to Me is transformed from operetta ballad to jazz tune by upping the tempo a little and having trumpeter Jimmy Blake play a nice obbligato behind Mildred’s first chorus. In the middle section, she sings some nice variations on the original melody. Hank d’Amico also has a nice bit on clarinet, followed by Berry.

Twelve more tracks with Norvo’s band follow this, seven of them credited to her name. She did such a nice job on Weekend of a Private Secretary that it hit #10 on the pop charts. Please Be Kind is an okay ballad but still a ballad. Her version of Don’t Be That Way, one of her few records in which she scats, may have been the very first to include Mitchell Parish’s lyrics and hit #9. Says My Heart, a surprisingly good song by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, was her first #1 hit while I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart hit #8. Both are good performances. The next two, surprisingly, are old songs, My Melancholy Baby and The Lonesome Road, which she enlivens with her wonderful phrasing though Bill Miller’s arrangements are pretty dull. So Help Me is a very pedestrian song by Jimmy van Heusen, as is Willard Robison’s dreadful Old Folks, but Bailey has fun with Small Fry and does a nice job with Larry Clinton arrangement of Debussy’s My Reverie, which hit #9 and #10 respectively.

In a surprising reversal of the usual, the next four tracks, though credited as Red Norvo’s and Mildred Bailey’s Orchestras, are actually played by the already-famous John Kirby Sextet of Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle, Kirby and O’Neill Spencer, with Norvo joining them on xylophone. Ironically, the worst of these songs, Have You Forgotten So Soon?, is the one that hit the charts as #5. Sauter’s arrangement of Begin the Beguine is particularly fine. ‘Tain’t What You Do might have been written for her though it was really a Sy Oliver arrangement for Jimmie Lunceford.

Gulf Coast Blues is a certifiable classic, sung with Mary Lou Williams on piano and Floyd Smith on electric guitar. Much rarer is the other piece recorded the same day, Russ Columbo’s Prisoner of Love. I didn’t think Mildred would be able to salvage this tune, but surprisingly she did…as in the case of Where Are You?, it’s the best recording I’ve heard of it. By the time she made Darn That Dream, she was no longer a guest artist on a Goodman record but his interim female singer between Martha Tilton, who had recently departed, and Helen Forrest, who had not yet arrived. Like so many others, Benny loved Mildred’s voice and phrasing but found her a sour and taciturn personality, otherwise she might have stayed for a while, particularly since this song (again arranged by Sauter, who was now Goodman’s arranger) hit #1 on the charts. Peace, Brother! Is just a swing-era novelty, but Sauter and Bailey manage to make it a fun listen. Unusually, the first soloist up on the latter is not Goodman but alto saxist Toots Mondello.

Next we get the lone representation of Bailey’s jazz-classical period on this set, Alec Wilder’s superb arrangement of Don’t Take Your Love From Me. It’s amazing how different a song like this could sound when scored by someone with imagination in both instrumentation and harmonic movement. Bailey adored his arrangements though they alienated her with the “hot jazz” crowd. Teddy Wilson takes the piano solo in the middle. Not surprisingly, though the instrumentation is just a jazz sextet, the Ellis Larkins versions of Me and the Blues and At Sundown have a similar feel to the Wilder track—this was the kind of setting she preferred for her voice post-1940 (she even persuaded her old nemesis, Eddie Sauter, to write a superb arrangement of The Man I Love for a Crown 78 session she did with her now ex-hubby Norvo). Bob Haggart, formerly of the Bob Crosby band, is the bassist while Jimmy Crawford, formerly of the Lunceford big band, is the drummer. The booklet only credits a quartet to At Sundown, but one can clearly hear an unnamed clarinetist and trombonist on this track. We end our survey of Mildred Bailey with a not-really-first rate pop arrangement of All of Me from 1947. Sappy strings play footballs (whole notes) and woodwinds underscore the voice. Her phrasing is still good but the setting is pure pop dreck.

The reproduction of these archive recordings is nearly immaculate. So many British CD producers like including 78-rpm surface noise in their releases that it’s a pleasure to hear it minimized so well on this release. My sole complaint is that the high end is slightly muffled, which affects not only Bailey’s voice but the brightness of the trumpet, clarinet and alto sax solos throughout. I recommend boosting treble quite a bit when playing this set. Otherwise, with the exception of the songs noted above as being quite awful, highly recommended.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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A New Weinberg Release on Dux

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WP 2019 - 2WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3. Flute Concerto* / Łukasz Dlugosz, fl; Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio; Anna Duczmal-Mróz, cond / Dux 1525

In this, the 100th anniversary year of Mieczysław Weinberg’s birth (spelled on this release as Wajnberg, and sometimes even spelled Vainberg), neither his home country of Poland nor his adopted country of Russian (formerly the USSR) are planning a single memorial concert, which is tragic, but here the Polish CD label Dux has done us a great favor by issuing his two rarely-heard Chamber Symphonies and his Flute Concerto.

One reason why Weinberg is being ignored is that much of his music is unusual in form and structure. He used modern harmonies but seldom if ever wrote in a harsh, abrasive style, but neither did he normally write in an accessible one. Most of his symphonies lack the kind of form that audiences expect from such pieces; they are moody, occasionally joyful but often despairing, mirroring his own personal experience fleeing Poland after the Nazi invasion and then hearing, from a distance, of the decimation of his family and friends. Even in the liner notes of this release, it is noted that “his music in our country is well known only to a narrow group of recipients.”

Surprisingly, these chamber symphonies, though moving (after the initial themes) into unusual development sections, are not only more cheerful but also more accessible. They sound just as one would expect from works with such a title, and if they are closer in style to mid-20th century composers rather than those of the late 19th they also have a surprising number of formed melodies which he worked into interesting figures. Happily, the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio and its conductor, Anna Duczmal-Mróz, attack these scores with wonderful feeling in addition to crisp attacks and a perfect ensemble blend.

Although these are chamber symphonies in the sense that a small orchestra is used, they are not “small” symphonies. The first runs over 31 minutes, with a first movement of 10:25 and a second movement of 11:03, and the second runs nearly 32 minutes. In form, then, they are fully fleshed-out works. This is particularly evident in the first symphony’s second movement, marked “Andante-Allegro.” The contrast between the slow first half and the faster, more cheerful second half is striking, yet thematically Weinberg managed to tie both parts together in his typical fashion. The real surprise comes in the third-movement “Allegretto,” which is paced at the slow end of that tempo designation and has a sort of bittersweet quality about it, with several short pauses between its “falling” figures. The last movement begins with biting figures played by the celli and basses, followed by scurrying violin figures to which Weinberg wrote a lively if somewhat galumphing counterpoint. To a certain extent, this work put me in mind of Shostakovich’s piano concerti, which also use accessible themes within a tolerably modern harmonic environment.

The flute concerto also has a Shostakovich-like sound; perhaps due to the nature of the solo instrument, it is even happier-sounding music than the first chamber symphony, with flitting figures played by both the soloists and the high strings while the celli play bouncing counterpoint underneath. Another surprise is the depth of feeling Weinberg put into the second movement, which almost sounds like a completely separate work in its mood, while the third walks a tightrope between good humor and a sort of wry cynicism.

The third chamber symphony opens with a pleasant but quite serious theme played by the violas, followed later with a different theme played high in the violins. This is closer in both mood and structure to his symphonies for full orchestra, only in microcosm, or perhaps (for me, anyway) a far superior version of Strauss’ dreary Metamorphosen for 23 strings. (I’ll never forget being assigned to listen to that piece of dreck and then write an essay on its form and meaning. I described its form as “continually sad music in canon that scarcely develops, but stays in one place for a half-hour and makes you want to slit your wrists.” They were not amused, but I still maintain that I was right.) By contrast, the second movement jumps into a happy space via detached viola figures, with the celli playing a smoothly gliding commentary beneath and the violins whole notes above. This gets developed in a brilliant fashion, with the three string sections interacting and contributing to the scurrying, joyous whole. It’s a rare movement of unabashed happiness from a composer whose life and psyche were so scarred by tragedy and failure.

The third-movement “Adagio” has more forward momentum than the opening “Lento,” but also less of a dolorous feel to it. There’s a very moving cello solo towards the end that I could easily hear being played by a great cellist such as Steven Isserlis or Zuill Bailey. This moves, after the shortest of pauses, into the whimsical, happy-but-bittersweet final “Andantino,” again with the violas leading the way in the opening theme. Just before the seven-minute mark, the orchestra falls away and we hear a plaintive violin solo which leads into the slow closing section. Here we have the more typical Weinberg, writing music that moves the listener away from his or her expectations.

This is a splendid album, beautifully played and also beautifully recorded. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Springing Forward With David Shifrin!

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SPRING FORWARD / SCHICKELE: Spring Forward.1 DANIELPOUR: Clarinet Quintet.2 KERNIS: Perpetual Chaconne3 / David Shifrin, cl; 1Miró Qrt; 2Dover Qrt; 3Jasper Qrt / Delos DE 3528

Clarinetist David Shifrin, whose work I’ve always liked, here presents three quintets by three different American composers with three different string quartets. The first is a serious work (if one can call any of his music really “serious”) by the multi-talented but wacky Peter Schickele, who has presided over the musical legacy of P.D.Q. Bach for the past 57 years. As in all of his own works I’ve heard, Schickele has a strong sense of form but also an predictable streak laden with humor, and Spring Forward is no exception. Lively rhythms, a touch of jazz and unpredictable twists and turns are all a part of his music, and all are on full display here. He even throws in a few harmonic dissonances for spice, though the second movement has a fairly straightforward harmonic progression and is quite lovely, albeit with a fairly lively middle section. The third movement, in particular, reveals Schickele’s humor in its odd distribution of meter and quirky development. After a brief (2:17), lyrical “Interlude,” we reach the jig-like finale, “A Perfect Picnic,” with its occasional out-of-tonality notes thrown in for flavor.

For the most part, Richard Danielpour’s music is quite tonal and at times easily accessible. This quintet, however, subtitled “The Last Jew in Hamadan,” brings back memories of his childhood in that Iranian city that once had a fairly large Jewish population until the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979 and began executing them, including one of Danielpour’s uncles. Another of his uncles was sent to prison but escaped, and a third fled to Turkey disguised as a mullah. The music is thus imbued with happiness, edginess, tragedy and hope; the first movement has a strong Eastern feel to it and is developed extremely well. The second begins in a more pastoral mood, so much so that it almost sounds like a discrete composition not necessarily tied to the first until the 4:30 mark when it suddenly picks up in a swift, dramatic passage before returning to the pastoral mood of the opening.

The finale of this disc is Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne, which begins very slowly with falling figures played by the violins against the clarinet line. The music is tonal and pleasant but not mundane; around 3:30 the tempo picks up and the music develops in an unusual and striking manner, with the string lines becoming more complex and a gradual acceleration to add interest. Indeed, the music becomes ever more complex, particularly in rhythm, and more intense as it goes along, then decelerates to its original slow tempo for further development. In the final section, the faster tempo returns.

A very interesting disc of world premiere recordings, then, with the Schickele piece and the first movement of Danielpour’s quintet being the particular standouts.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Tripping the Light Fantastic with Truman Harris

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HARRIS: Rosemoor Suite.1,3,4.7 Aulos Triptych.1,2,6 Concertino for Horn & Chamber Orchestra.7,8 Flowers.1,3,4.7  Sonata for 2 Bassoons & Piano.5,6 Concertino for Flute & Chamber Orchestra1.8 / 1Alice Kogan Weinreb, 2Aaron Goldman, 2Carole Bean, 2Leah Arsenault Barrick, fl; 3Nicholas Stovall, ob; 3Paul Cigan, cl; 4Truman Harris, 5Sue Heineman, 5Steven Wilson, bsn; 7Laurel Bennert Ohlson, Fr-hn; 6Audrey Andrist, pno; 8Eclipse Chamber Orch.; 8Sylvia Alimena, cond / Naxos 8.559858

American composer and bassoonist Truman Harris (b. 1945) is one of those writers whose work can best be described as light and witty without being mundane or cloying. It’s essentially tonal with harmonic twists and turns, the rhythms are generally straightforward, but at no time is any of it predictable. In short, this is the kind of music that fits my definition of “delightful,” not the predictable old-timey tonal music of the Romantic era that everyone else seems to think is the cat’s meow.

This is immediately evident in the Rosemoor Suite, a collection of five pieces for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This is a combination that Harris really favors; the even shorter Flowers, which pops up later in this program, is written for the same combination. Harris himself plays the bassoon on both. Even in the slow piece in this suite, “By the Stream, Late September,” Harris manages to hold one’s interest via repeated rhythms and overlapping solo spots in a quasi-hocket style, although this is the one piece that would be most likely to turn up on your local snoresville classical FM station. “Charleston” emulates the beat of this famed 1920s dance, but here Harris really skewers the harmony in an effort to shake things up, while the finale, “Silent Movie,” is, surprisingly, less frenetic in tempo and sounds more like a modern composer’s reaction to a silent movie than the kind of music one might actually hear accompanying one. It also includes plaintive solo spots for the oboe and flute in a slower tempo.

The Aulos Triptych refers to the ancient Greek flute that was often paired with the Greek harp or kithara, but there’s nothing really Greek about this music. It has lively American rhythms, the opening movement, in fact, being in a rollicking 6/8. It almost (but not quite) sounds like the kind of music you would have heard in the background of an episode of Peabody’s Improbable History on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, except that it’s somewhat more complex in its interweaving of instruments. The second piece, “Dreams of Fantastic Places,” is slower in tempo but, oddly, still uses a 6/8 tempo and is more rhythmically complex than its counterpoint in the Rosemoor Suite. The last piece, “A Warm Day in Winter,” is in 4 but with several double-time passages, weaving the piano part among the four flutes in an intriguing manner.

The Concertino for Horn & Chamber Orchestra is a bit more ambitious in form, but only just. This is yet another lively piece which sounds fun to play, and although our horn soloist, Laurel Bennert Ohlson, has a somewhat rough tone, she sounds as if she’s having a ball playing it. The music here uses contrasting meters and tempi in its development sections, but again is primarily tonal. In fact, the music bears some resemblance to the wonderful pieces that Alec Wilder wrote for his French horn buddy, the late John Barrows. There are also some wonderfully intricate passages in the first movement for interwoven winds, and when the strings re-enter the tempo picks up, the rhythm becomes more complex, and Harris throws in some whole-tone passages. I did, however, find the second movement to be less original and adventurous, albeit still amusing, with a few unusual key changes thrown in for good measure. The third movement opens as a fun romp in polka tempo. At the 1:17 mark, however, Harris throws in some rhythmic complexities that make the music sound as if it were running backwards, and afterwards the pace slows up in order to add a few other syncopated touches in the orchestral part.

Flowers returns us to the syncopated part-writing and ebullient mood of the Rosemoor Suite, except that each section is considerably shorter and thus more compact in ideas. I felt that the third piece, “Tulip,” was relatively stagnant although pleasant to listen to, but “Kudzu” was particularly ingenious in construction with a sort of loping 4/4 beat at a medium brisk tempo.

Possible because the bassoon is his instrument, I felt that the Sonata for 2 Bassoons & Piano was by far the most serious as well as the most complex and arresting piece on the album. The essential style is the same, but here Harris is less flippant in his use of motor rhythms and his development sections are even more complex than in the other works. Sometimes he has the two bassoons play contrapuntally against each other, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes gives one of them a lyrical line while the other plays syncopated figures against it. In addition, the piano part has a real jazz feel to it, something I did not detect in the other pieces. Indeed, the first movement, with its continual rhythmic shifting during the development section, is a sort of locus classicus in how to write modern chamber music with a jazz influence. The second movement, a bit more conventional, is quite lovely in its own way, but in the third Harris again returns to syncopated rhythms that have at least a touch of jazz beat about them—although, in my mind’s ear, I could hear a more jazz-based pianist doing even more with the piano part than Audrey Andrist does here. At the 1:56 mark there are some remarkable cross-rhythmic effects, after which the tempo relaxes for a few bars before picking up steam again.

The flute Concertino, though also lively, is a bit more serious than the one for horn and, to my ears, better written overall. Mind you, the horn Concertino is not badly written, but much more lightweight in its ideas and not as strongly developed. Here, I felt that Harris had a better feel for the instrument and used it more as a voice in the overall progression of the music rather than as a “showcase” instrument. It’s a subtle difference, but to me an important one. Once again he uses contrasting rhythms for his contrasting themes and developments, yet here they seem to follow upon one another more logically and hold one’s interest better. Even the syncopations are knitted into the overall musical progression better than in the horn Concertino, although I found the slow second movement somewhat predictable in comparison to the outer movements.

In toto, then, an interesting disc with many interesting and fun moments and a really great sonata for bassoons and piano.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Nick Grinder Pays Tribute to Bird Sanctuaries

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FARALLON / GRINDER: New and Happy. Potential. 5 Steps. Inaction. Belly Up. Deciduous. Farallon. Staged. MONK: Reflections / Nick Grinder, tb; Ethan Helm, a-sax; Juanma Trujillo, gtr; Walter Stinson, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Outside In Music 2141845X

This album, scheduled for release on February 22, is trombonist Nick Fallon’s second. It is also his tribute to the Farallon Islands, which are sanctuaries to sea birds and mammals 30 miles offshore of California where no humans other than marine biologists may go.

From the very opening of New and Happy, we seem plunged into the world of contrapuntal cool jazz from the late 1950s. Echoes of Jimmy Knepper, Tony Scott and their colleagues abound in the catchy rhythm and lightweight playing of guitar, bass and drums, and Grinder himself plays with a mellow, burry tone, superb lip and slide control and excellent musical construction in his solos. Ethan Helm is no slouch on alto sax, either; both play busy but cogent solo spots that make the music sparkle. Drummer Matt Honor is the type of percussionist you seldom hear nowadays, terse and tasteful in his own solo with deft stick work.

Potential is an ultra-slow piece that, in the beginning, almost sounds classical in design, with Grinder and Helm playing off one another a cappella. Even when the drums and guitar enter, they play minimal figures behind the horns. Yet it is a fascinating piece that finally assumes a regular pulse at about 2:23. The music almost “falls together” as a piece in a way that I found fascinating, and oddly enough it is Helm who dominates the proceedings, although Walter Stinson also takes a sparse bass solo as well (with Helm playing soft whole notes in the background). Grinder returns to play simple figures in tandem with Helm towards the end.

We return to ‘50s-style classic cool with 5 Steps. Here, the simple-sounding but slyly complex melody leads into a fine Grinder solo while Helm and guitarist Juanma Trujillo play buzzing figures behind him. Trujillo’s distorted guitar takes a slow, surreal solo in the middle. Inaction opens with a solo, cup-muted trombone solo, then moves into a slow, stately theme and later a surprisingly funky solo by the leader. Alas, Trujillo plays flat in his solo and has little or no originality in his improvisation.

Belly Up has a quirky rhythm played at a medium tempo, and an equally unusual melodic line. Grinder’s solo is outstanding, following both the odd rhythm and underlying harmonies to create an entirely new structure. After the guitar solo, trombone and alto play in unison, probably a written passage that also develops the theme. In Deciduous, we return to a ‘50s progressive jazz structure, lightly swinging yet with displaced beats that keeps the listener a bit disoriented. Helm’s alto solo is again outstanding, and here the rhythm section fractures the beat so much that it almost sounds like free jazz of the early 1960s. Once again, however, we have to put up with Trujillo’s distorted, out-of-tune guitar playing. Trujillo’s pitch is also a bit suspect, though not as flat, in the long, uninteresting opening solo of the title tune, which is at long last saved by a fine bass solo and the leader’s muted trombone.

Staged is a medium-tempo piece with a nice, quasi-Latin beat to it. Grinder has the mute back in his horn, playing the very nice opening melody which contains some interesting chord changes before moving into his solo, which gains in volume and intensity as it progresses. There’s also a nifty drum solo in this one. We close with one of Thelonious Monk’s rare ballads, Reflections, played beautifully by Grinder on open horn with the rhythm section behaving itself behind him. Trujillo plays a pretty decent solo on this one.

Overall, then, a very fine album with a few bad patches from our intrepid guitarist. But for that, this would be a five-star review.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Urszula Kryger Presents Women’s Songs

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WOMEN OF MUSIC SONGS / I. WIENIAWSKI [POLDOWSKI]: L’heure exquise. Berceuse d’armorique. Cynthère. C. SCHUMANN: Warum willst du and’re fragen. Der Wanderer. Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage. Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen. Mein Stern. CHAMINADE: Mignonne. Amoroso. Sur la plage. L’été. L’absente. BACKER-GRØNDAHL: Den vildene Fugl. Forsilde. Barnesang. Skyggekys / Urszula Kryger, mez; Agata Górska-Kołodziejska, pno / Dux 1524

This is the kind of album I often dread, a collection of songs by women composers mostly of the Romantic period, but since I knew the work of two of the composers herein I took a chance on it.

One reason why this program works is that mezzo-soprano Urszula Kryger has an absolutely ear-ravishing voice of the sort you almost never hear nowadays: pretty without being cloying, steady tonal emission, crystal-clear diction and an interesting style that makes several of these songs sound like better music than they are. In addition, pianist Agata Górska-Kołodziejska plays with a crisp touch and an excellent sense of line.

The first composer up to bat in this lineup is Irène Wieniawski (1879-1952), no relation to the famous Polish violinist-composer, who used the pen name Poldowski. Although she one of the two composers here who worked into the 20th century, her songs are typical of the “Belle Epoque” period that produced Reynaldo Hahn and others. They are, however, exquisitely crafted, and Kryger sings them superbly.

I have commented previously that, for the most part, Clara Schumann was not nearly as good and certainly not as original a composer as her famous husband, but in these brief songs I think we get the very best of what she had to offer. Her aesthetic was more Schubertian than anything else; if anything, she used less interesting harmonies than Schubert, but her melodic gifts are on full display here. Being a fine pianist herself, the piano accompaniments were surprisingly tame compared to those of Schubert, and in the end I think it is this that makes a few of the songs (i.e., Die gute Nacht) somewhat disappointing, but in Er ist gekommen both her keyboard prowess and her gift for melody come through much more strongly.

Urzula Kryger

Urszula Kryger

Cecile Chaminade, the other composer on this disc who lived into the 20th century, had more of a pre-Debussy French style, similar to the work of Chausson or Fauré, yet even in Mignonne one hears better construction and a more interesting (if not significantly advanced) use of harmony in the accompaniment. As an overall song, integrating both an interesting melodic line with interesting harmonic movement, I particularly liked Sur la plage, but was stunned by the liveliness of L’Été, which calls for surprisingly virtuosic singing of the roulade and trill type one rarely if ever hears in her music. Kryger dispatches these technical difficulties with fluent ease.

The most obscure composer presented here, however, is undoubtedly Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (1847-1907), one of the most famous women pianists of the 19th century. Interestingly, I thought her songs more imaginatively constructed than those of Clara Schumann, using falling chromatic changes and projecting, to my ears, a deeper mood, almost Russian feeling (particularly in Forsilde). In Skyggekys, a slow, smoldering song, she begins having the singer almost whisper the lyrics, and the melodic construction is initially broken, with separated, somber chords played by the pianist. She is clearly the “find” of this recital.

Well worth hearing for Kryger’s mesmerizing and outstanding singing and what she can do with this material.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Braunfels’ Fantastical Apparitions

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BRAUNFELS: Fantastical Apparitions on a Theme of Hector Berlioz, Op. 25. Sinfonia Brevis, Op. 69 / Deutsche Staatsphiharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Gregor Bühl, cond / Capriccio C5354

In my earlier reviews of Walter Braunfels’ music (Works for Piano & Orchestra), I noted that, although his music is not nearly as weird as the lurid album cover suggests, he “was clearly a solid composer who used classical form in a sort of Straussian aesthetic with a little Scriabin thrown in for flavor.” In this CD, however, the opening work is based on Mephistopheles’ “Une puce gentile” from La damnation de Faust, and is very colorful indeed. This is its first full recording.

It also helps that Gregor Bühl is a very energetic conductor who clearly likes this music and gives it all he has. Leaning on Berlioz, Braunfels managed to create a piece nearly as colorful as his model if not quite as spiky in its orchestration as his model. There are some very explosive moments, though, particularly in the “third Apparition,” yet unlike Berlioz, Braunfels immediately follows this with a slow, ultra-Romantic section that sounds like MGM movie music of the 1940s. Braunfels wrote this piece in 1914-17, when the mere idea of lushly-scored movie music was about 20 years in the future, but the comparison still stands. The ensuing variation is also slow, goopy, and unimaginatively tonal.

This was Braunfels’ weakness: a prediliction for the obvious in music, sometimes even moreso than his model, Strauss. If you like this sort of music, knock yourself out, but in a set of variations based on Berlioz I really expected something more original and imaginative. Braunfels redeems himself somewhat in the ensuing variations beginning with the seventh, but by then my attention had strayed and I was angry at him for descending to Romantic mush. Hearing those two variations, I could understand why this is the piece’s first complete recording. You’d have to threaten my life to make me conduct those two pieces—and the 12th “Apparition” isn’t much of a prize, either.

Happily, the Sinfonia Brevis from 1948 is a much more advanced and interesting work. The title is a bit of a misnomer—at 31 minutes long, this Sinfonia isn’t brief at all—but the music does have a more interesting structure and good development. Indeed, I really liked this piece; it sounds like Strauss if Strauss had developed his harmonic language beyond Elektra, which he never really did (on the contrary, beginning with Der Rosenkavalier he regressed). Moreover, there seemed to me more of a menacing feel to this music, particularly in the first movement, than in the variations on Berlioz’ tune. The second movement here is as good an indication as any as to Braunfels’ growth as a composer: although his themes are broad and somewhat melodic, he completely avoids the sappy style he wrote in 1914-17, much to his credit, although it goes on too long and wears out its welcome by the five-minute mark. The third-movement scherzo, however, returns us to original and imaginative music (though the slow middle section becomes tiresome), while the last movement

In toto, this is not as consistently interesting a disc of Braunfels’ music as the first one I reviewed, but it has several very fine moments mixed in with some banal and tiresome ones.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Grace Williams’ Amazing Music

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WP 2019 - 2WILLIAMS: Violin Sonata / Madeleine Mitchell, vln; Konstantin Lapshin, pno / Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Cello & Piano / John Anderson, ob; Bruce Nockles, tpt; Gordon Mackay, vln; Roger Chase, vla; Joseph Spooner, cel; David Owen Norris, pno / Suite for Nine Instruments / London Chamber Ens / Romanza for Oboe & Bass Clarinet / Anderson, ob; Andrew Sparling, bs-cl / Sarabande for Piano Left Hand / Norris, pno / Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello / Mitchell, Mackay, vln; Spooner, cel / Naxos 8.571380

Grace Williams (1906-1977) was a Welsh woman composer who, unfortunately, was not well known outside her native country, but judging from this CD her music was exceptionally interesting. Madeleine Mitchell, who directs the London Chamber Ensemble whose members are heard in various combinations on this disc and plays the Violin Sonata herself, also knew little or nothing about Williams until she discovered the sonata and performed it at the Welsh Music Information Centre in Cardiff in 2017, the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death. This, in turn, led to her discovery of the other works heard here—all unpublished—through the National Library of Wales. This disc, produced through the generosity of the British Music Society Charitable Trust, is the result, all of them world premiere recordings.

One of Williams’ greatest assets was the ability to write terse yet well-developed music. The entire Violin Sonata, for instance, runs only 18 minutes long though it is in three movements, and even the longest work on this CD—the Sextet, which runs 31:17—does not tire the listener or overstay its welcome. Unlike many composers of her time, Williams did not really follow any of the most common trends in modern classical music of her time. Although even the Violin Sonata, which is the earliest work presented here (written in 1930), uses decidedly modern harmonic changes, it is largely tonal or modal and does not follow the styles of Stravinsky, Bartók, Honegger, Hindemith, Schoenberg or Shostakovich. She was her own person and wrote in a style that can only be termed personal.

Grace Williams 2

Grace Williams in the 1940s (photographer unknown)

And she was highly self-critical. Even after revising the Violin Sonata in 1938, she wrote on the manuscript in later years, “2nd mvmt worth performing. 1st & 3rd not good enough.” But I disagree, and apparently Mitchell does, too. Indeed, if anything the second movement, though very well written, is the most accessible of them, pursuing a very tonal but haunting melodic line throughout. Mitchell hears echoes of Bartók and Shostakovich in this sonata, but I would argue that they are echoes only. In the third movement, Williams creates themes that sound, oddly, a bit like both Middle Eastern and American Indian music, but ultimately come out as wholly original. Williams definitely had her own “voice,” and this is what makes her music, to my ears, much more interesting than such highly-touted women composers as Amy Beach, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Germaine Tailleferre or Florence Mills, whose music was solidly written but more derivative of then-current trends. Grace Williams was more on a par with Lili Boulanger. Both were mavericks even within the musical avant-garde of their respective times. I think it was this core strength to her music which, like American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, went against the grain of what was traditionally considered “women’s music,” that put both Boulanger and Williams behind the eight ball, so to speak, when it came to gaining widespread recognition.

In the Sextet, written one year after the Violin Sonata, Williams included her favorite instrument—the trumpet. This, too, has a style somewhat related to Shostakovich but also oddly similar to some of Benjamin Britten’s early works, which were written several years later. The slow introduction to the first movement is written in alternating 3/4 and 4/4, which also returns at the end. In the “Allegro con brio” middle section, the music is scored less as a block of instruments than like a sinfonia concertante, with each instrument having its solo spots and using only a few of the six at a time. Once again, despite the surprising length of the first movement (10:18), Williams is compact in her statements and development, and here too there are faint echoes of American Indian themes, which gives the music a peculiarly “American” sound, much like the 1940s work of Aaron Copland. She also conjured up an unusual rhythmic pattern of her own for the lively second-movement “Allegro scherzando,” which includes an unusually slow middle section, and the opening of the “Andante; Tranquillo e semplice,” with its use of a muted trumpet and unusual melodic structure, is unique to say the least. In the “Allegro molto,” Williams uses a tarantella rhythm greatly modified with strong overtones of an Irish jig and using strange modal harmonies and pentatonic scalar movement in its themes.

But if you think this was pretty advanced for its time, wait until you hear the 1934 Suite for Nine Instruments. Here, Williams is clearly under the influence of Stravinsky, but in influence only. Her sense of lyricism even within a largely neo-classic style and spikier harmonies was, again, highly personal and quite different. If anything, the second movement (“Andantino”) is even stranger, sounding almost like something written in the 21st century, as does the succeeding “Allegro con brio.” The closest I can come to describing this is the late Françaix wind quintet, but even that doesn’t really define how original this music sounds.

Williams again shows her stylistic diversity in the little (2:14) but perfectly-written Romanza for oboe and clarinet from the 1940s, and in the 1958 Sarabande for Piano Left Hand (1958) we hear an entirely different composer, more brooding and sparse in her musical meanderings. Gone in these two works are the echoes of Americana and also any allusions to Shostakovich or pre-echoes of Britten. Yet one more surprise is in store: the 1970 Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello sounds for all the world like 18th-century music—sort of like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella except that, in this case, the theme is wholly original.

What an interesting composer, and what splendid and spirited performances these are! This disc will surely intrigue and impress you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Susanna’s Secret Returns!

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WOLF-FERRARI: Il Segreto di Susanna. Serenade for Strings in Eb / Judith Howarth, sop (Susanna); Àngel Òdena, bar (Gil); Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, cond / Naxos 8.660385

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is one of the more neglected composers of the “Verismo” era although, as his excellent violin concerto proved, he was a more accomplished composer than his more two-dimensional colleagues Leoncavallo, Mascagni and even Puccini. Although he wrote several operas, the only one that really caught on was this one, which premiered (oddly enough) in German(!) at the Munich Hoftheater in 1909.

This is not its only recording, nor even its only digital recording. Wikipedia lists six other releases, including one with Renata Scotto and Renato Bruson from 1980 and the most recent, with Dora Rodrigues, Marc Canturri and conductor Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, on Avie Records in 2010. This one was actually released a dozen years ago, on the Philartis label in 2006, but was hard to find.

The plot is simple and comically ironic. Count Gil has discovered his wife Susanna walking alone in the street, something he forbade her to do since their wedding. (Apparently, Susanna was a streetwalker from way back.) Smelling tobacco in his living room, Gil suspects her of cheating on him with a smoker, a suspicion he thinks confirmed when he smells tobacco smoke on her clothes. She admits to him that she has a secret but won’t tell him what it is. He turns their home upside-down looking for signs of cheating, but finds nothing. After he leaves the house, the secret is revealed: Susanna is now a smoker, but only behind his back, along with their servant Sante. Gil returns, smells the smoke and again searches the house for her lover in pretext of looking for his umbrella. Eventually she admits her secret to him.

There’s a double irony in this denouement. Back in 1909, it was taboo for women to smoke. Nowadays, 110 years later, it’s pretty much taboo for ANYONE to smoke. Those who do are considered idiots, poorly educated dolts or bad people who have no respect for their health—this despite the fact that, then as now, it is only a small percentage of smokers who develop and die of lung cancer. But we live in a Nanny State World, and pot smoking is considered cool, hip and safe (though modern marijuana is anything BUT safe—check it out of you don’t believe me).

The question is, however, how good is this opera, really? Apparently it was not just the subject matter but the music that attracted audiences and help this slight, 44-minute work hold the boards for more than a decade in opera houses around the world (it was last heard at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1922, with Lucrezia Bori as Susanna and Antonio Scotti as Count Gil). And make no mistake, the music is very good. Wolf-Ferrari wisely chose to make this a comic opera rather than a serious one, and from the superbly-crafted overture (even played and recorded by no less than Toscanini) onward, one realizes that Wolf-Ferrari was a very accomplished composer. The music is witty but never banal; indeed, it is almost on a par with such first-rate Italian composers as Martucci and late Verdi, which is saying something. In the early going, especially, it is the orchestra (as in Falstaff) that carries the thread of the music, imparting an ironic wittiness to everything that is sung, mostly in a semi-parlando style with occasional short ariosos by Count Gil and his wife (Sante is a mime role, like the butler in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona). I was delighted to hear that baritone Àngel Òdena has a fine, dark voice if also a slightly uneven vibrato, and characterizes well. Soprano Howarth has an absolutely gorgeous voice and, as the performances progresses, reveals herself as a fine vocal actress.

As in the case of many such comic operas, La Serva Padrona and Falstaff included, Il Segreto di Susanna lacks something when only heard and not seen, but if the listener pays close attention to the orchestra he or she will not be disappointed. It also didn’t hurt that Friedrich Haider was wonderfully tuned into this music or that his orchestra played it with great affection. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the music elevates this somewhat threadbare plot and makes it palatable, although here the vocal acting also keeps one attentive and interested. In a way, it’s like a comic orchestral tone poem (say, Till Eulenspiegel) with voices. And the musical invention never stops or becomes predictable; Wolf-Ferrari knew how to write a continuous score à la Wagner or Debussy, without pauses or full stops to insert arias as Puccini, Mascagni et al did. The only moments one could call arias for Susanna are the scenas “Così non mi lasciate” and “Oh gioia la nube leggiera,” and these, too, are woven into the fabric of the score. Compare them to even the arias in Puccini’s Il Trittico, where he stops the ongoing musical flow and completely changes pace, emphasizing pretty melodies and high notes over an integral piece that makes sense in context.

All in all, then, this is a splendid representation of a somewhat one-off but still brilliant work that could easily be staged in a tongue-in-cheek manner today. As a filler on this disc, we now get the same composer’s early Serenade for Strings in Eb. Although this music is clearly not developed or worked out in as complex a manner as the opera, you can still tell it’s the work of a good composer. Its lightweight nature conceals the art than went into it; its carefree, lyrical melodies strike the ear gratefully but sometimes obscure the wonderfully delicate and clever scoring, seldom using the full body of strings to make its point. It’s not deep music but it’s certainly not bad or banal. If you have a proclivity to enjoy Italian music of the late Romantic period that is not cheap or tawdry, then, this CD will delight and surprise you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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William Harvey Plays Schnabel & Schubert

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WP 2019 - 2SCHNABEL: Violin Sonata. SCHUBERT: Fantasy in C, D. 934 / William Harvey, vln; Frederic Chiu, pno / Centaur CRC 3678

At this point in time, it’s no longer surprising that pianist Artur Schnabel was also a composer whose works were unabashedly modern, not at all in the mold of Beethoven, Schubert or Mozart, the composers he was most closely associated with as a performer. I’ve found his chamber works to be mostly fascinating, even brilliant music, but his large-scale orchestral works arid and unappealing.

Fortunately, violinist William Harvey presents here his massive, half-hour-long sonata for solo violin, and except for some technical feats it is a work that owes little to the solo sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach. It is, rather, more of a ruminating work with dramatic moments. Its language is modal with moments of atonality, not nearly as harmonically grating as his orchestral music, and perhaps because it was written for the violin it has wonderful moments with really expansive melodic lines, all of which Harvey plays exceptionally well. Harvey, who has played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall as well as with orchestras in the Philippines, Mexico and the U.S.A., was recently named the concertmaster of the Mexican Orquestra Sinfónica National. According to the Schnabel Music Foundation website, Harvey took great interest in Schnabel the composer. In 2002, long before this sonata was published commercially, he contacted Schnabel’s heirs and received permission to study and perform it. This recording is the result of that endeavor, and a major work it is.

I was particularly surprised by the lyrical effusion of the relatively brief (2:57) second movement, which sounds like a cross between modern violin music and something that Fritz Kreisler might have written. This is also, considering Schnabel’s penchant for tightly-constructed music with little in the way of flash, a surprisingly virtuosic piece. The slow third movement, utilizing a great many chorded passages and portamento slides, is also reminiscent of Kreisler’s style but again more modern in its harmonic progression, although at about the 4:30 mark the tempo increases and things get rather thorny. Later on in the same movement, Schnabel almost becomes minimalistic in his use of sparse notes with a great deal of space between them.

The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo,” is a real tour-de-force, once again surprising for a work by Schnabel, and Harvey plays it with impeccable technique and a beautiful tone. In the fifth and last movement, “Sehr langsame Halbe, mit feierlichstem Ausdrück,” Schnabel returns to his more typical modern style, creating complex lines with bitonal and atonal harmonies that move and morph underneath the top line. By the midway point, virtuosic passages again dominate the piece, suddenly making a left turn in a surprising key change just before the 14-minute mark, then ends in a slow tempo with more Kreisler-like touches. It’s an utterly riveting work and one that, heard more frequently in concert, would undoubtedly make many new friends for Schnabel the composer since it is more accessible than many of his works.

As a filler on this disc, Harvey has chosen Schubert’s little-heard Fantasy for violin and piano. Little-heard it may be, but the slow opening section bears a strong resemblance to the composer’s Gross ist Jehova mixed in with a little of the String Quintet in C. Once again, Harvey plays with a beautiful tone and outstanding feeling, but Frederic Chiu appears to be playing one of those early pianos that sounds more like a toy instrument than the real thing, thus robbing the music of richness and color. A shame that, once again, the pursuit of historically-informed nonsense interferes with real, meaningful feeling in performance. In the fast section, Harvey plays with wonderful inflections without overdoing them, thus enlivening the music while Chiu rattles his little toy keyboard in the background. (Sorry, I don’t find it “charming,” I find it annoying. Just because Schubert had to suffer with an instrument like this doesn’t mean that we have to.) I was particularly impressed with the development section, where Schubert moves the little toy piano down into its lower range to, at long last, produce a few really dramatic moments as the violin plays passionately above it. Later on, however, it degenerates into typical Romantic-era effluvium with meaningless violin runs underscored by equally meaningless piano chords before returning to a recap of the introduction and ending on a strong note. An odd piece, then, with very good moments and very weak ones.

All in all, however, this CD is well worth obtaining for the Schnabel sonata. This is a major work and, in my view, a major performance as well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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