Raykhelson’s Interesting Chamber Music

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RAYKHELSON: Piano Trio No. 2.1 5 Short Pieces for Piano. Melodia for Violin & Piano.3 Piano Quartet in G#, “Homage to Robert Schumann” 1,2 / 1Marc Bouchkov, 3Ekaterina Astashova, vln; 2Andrei Usov, vla; 1Alexander Kniazev, cel; Konstantin Lifschitz, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0485

Composer Igor Rayhkelson’s music, influenced by both late-Romantic Russian classical scores and jazz, is described on the inlay of this CD as a “Rachmaninov-plays-the-blues” style. Judging from the slow opening movement of his Piano Trio No. 2, Rachmaninov may have influenced his tendency towards lyricism but clearly not his tendency to create more harmonically daring, interesting music. This movement has much more in common with Danny Elfman’s superb new Violin Concerto than it does to the old-timey style of Sergei R.

As for his “plays-the-blues” influence, this is fairly minor in this first movement, or at least it is in the hands of these very skilled but resolutely classical-minded musicians. The most famous of them is clearly Konstantin Lifschitz, a superb pianist whose work I’ve praised highly in the past, and his playing here is absolutely stupendous in its emotional drive, sensitivity and commitment, but let’s be honest: he doesn’t have a jazz sensibility. In a way, however, it doesn’t matter so much in this long (13:22) opening movement, which is full of fascinating contrasts while being built around excellent classical form. There are a couple of full stops in the music where I thought it was the end of the movement, only to be surprised a few seconds later when it took off again in a new direction. In addition to Lifschitz, violinist Marc Bouchkov and cellist Alexander Knaziev really dig in to provide a performance with remarkable frisson. Raykhelson achieves some wonderfully eerie effects by having the violinist play soft passages, occasionally, on the very edge of his strings, and when the music opens up in tempo and volume he unleashes a torrent of sound, all of which is still tightly bound to the work’s overall structure.

The Rachmaninov influence is clearly stronger in the second movement, a charming, lyrical waltz, yet even here Raykhelson introduces unusual chords and occasional edgy string tremolos to break up the mood. The fast passage, to my ears, is clearly meant to be played with a jazz swagger, but the most these musicians can muster is a ragtime bounce. But no matter: the music itself is fascinating, with constant syncopations pushing the music along except for a solo piano interlude in which the tempo is relaxed, the first of which leads to a surprisingly slow trio theme played by pizzicato strings. This has a climactic, louder section in the middle, which then leads to a sort of duo-cadenza played by the violin and cello.

The third and last movement eschews any jazz influence but begins as an edgy Allegro maestoso with moments of relaxation tossed in for contrast. The piano picks up a sort of running bass line over which the two strings play a very busy B theme, then another easing up of tempo for the trio section before moving into slower realms for the finale.

The 5 Short Pieces for Piano are pleasant fare but not particularly individual or interesting. Not really bad music, just nothing to write home about. Even Raykhelson’s first piano trio in one-movement, with several moods and leaning more towards conventional tonality than the second (and with more virtuosic passages for the pianist), is a more interesting work (see Vol. 1 of this series). The somewhat brief Melodia for violin and piano, though having more interesting harmonic changes than the piano pieces, is also relatively melodic and conventional.

The Piano Quartet, written as an homage to Robert Schumann, lies somewhere in between. The music has a bit more edge than the piano pieces or the first piano trio but only occasional moments of interesting tonality. Moreover, in this case Raykhelson’s pauses do not help in favor of the work’s construction, but rather sound more to me like affectations tossed in for effect, and the effect does not work. A lot of this score sounds like movie music to me, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

This CD, then, is a mixed bag. After the fascinating and brilliant Piano Trio No. 2, much of the remaining music is a considerable letdown…but oh, that Piano Trio is a great one!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Avalokite Duo Plays Harrison & Facchin

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THE PLANETS / HARRISON: Jahla in the Form of a Ductia to Pleasure Leopold Stokowski on his 90th Birthday. Avalokiteshvara. Music for Bill and Me (arr. Boniolo-Facchin). Beverly’s Troubadour. Serenade for Frank Wigglesworth (arr. Boniolo-Facchin). Sonata in Ishtarum (arr. Boniolo-Facchin). Serenade for Guitar & Optional Percussion (arr. Boniolo-Facchin).  FACCHIN: The Planets / Avalokite Duo: Patrizia Boniolo, harp; Guido Facchin, perc / Stradivarius STR 37123

Another disc of something new under the sun: a series of pieces by Lou Harrison, four of which are arranged here for harp and percussion, and a new suite titled The Planets written by the Avalokite Duo’s percussion player, Guido Facchin. And the performances of this duo are not drippy and full of Romantic overtones, but rather crisply and excitingly played. Yep, this is something different all right!

Unfortunately, the first track on this CD, Harrison’s Jahla in the Form of a Ductia to Pleasure Leopold Stokowski on his 90th Birthday, is not complete in either the download provided me or on the Naxos Music Library for free streaming. It stops at 57 seconds, whereas it’s supposed to go on for 1:56, twice as long. Perhaps they felt that since Stokowski is dead he only needed half-a-pleasure.

Happily, all of the other tracks are complete and are delightful. For the most part, Facchin’s percussion consists of things like finger cymbals, chimes and Oriental instruments that simulate the sound of sand rolling over a grate. These complement the harp very well, and it is the interesting structure of the music that keeps it from sounding New-Age-ish, despite the fact that several of these Harrison pieces have a sort of Indian-music sound about them. Oddly enough, it is the Serenade for Frank Wiglesworth that sounds the most like something Rabih Abou-Khalil might play—very “Silk Road”-like in its fast pace with almost Moroccan-sounding percussion.

Interestingly, Facchin’s own Planets suite sounds a little less Middle Eastern and more like something from Eastern Europe in rhythm and form. Here, Facchin plays a great deal of drums, something he shied away from in the Lou Harrison pieces. To a certain extent, I felt that the music herein was less a tonal description of the various planets (like Holst’s famous orchestral suite) and more of an impression of what the planets suggested to him. This is indicated to me by the fact that most of the titles come from the Greek form of the gods’ names after which the planets are named, to wit, Krònos instead of Saturn, Zeus instead of Jupiter, Áres instead of Mars, Afrodité instead of Venus, Poseidon instead of Neptune, and here including our own Earth as Gaia (the final piece in the suite). It is, however, colorful and imaginative music, mostly tonal or at least modal which makes it accessible to average listeners.

A real surprise in Afrodité is the appearance of a harmonica, perhaps the last instrument in the world one would expect to introduce the goddess of love (unless Venus was in a folk music band), but the music is a waltz with a nice, simple melody. Venus as a cowgirl, perhaps. But Hermés (Mercury) is even stranger, an odd, broken bitonal melody with alternating finger cymbals and thumping timpani behind the harp. Midway through, the tempo increases and it becomes sort of a broken-sounding belly dance. Curiouser and curiouser! Ouranós (Uranus) opens with artificial wind sounds and an air-raid siren while the harp plays an atonal tune while Poseidon sports a pounding, American Indian-type rhythm in the drums while the harp just plays little rhythmic figures in the foreground. Ploutón (Pluto) opens with an even more dissonant motif reminiscent of Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme.  Gaia (Earth) opens with an asymmetrical drum rhythm into which the harp fits its strange bitonal theme. The quick opening tempo later relaxes and the harp plays a much more melodic and tonal theme in front of cymbal washes and bass drum beats before the tempo increases again and bitonality returns. Eventually everything slows down and both harp and chimes (and harmonica!) play Handel’s aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” before ramping up the tempo and reintroducing the bitonality. A strange track indeed.

It may not be the greatest music in the world, but Facchin’s The Planets is indeed interesting music, and the Harrison pieces are also quite good in and of themselves.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring the Music of Hackbridge Johnson

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JOHNSON: Aspens. Ziggurats. Two Elegies for Strings & Harp. Symphony No. 15, “Where the Wind is Born.” Valse Mérovingienne / Liepāja Symphony Orch.; Paul Mann, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0456

Somehow I missed the first two volumes in this series of music by David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963), but this one is clearly impressive. The first two pieces, described by the composer as “nature or landscape pieces,” are ethereal at times yet manage to escape the stigma of “ambient classical” music that so often dogs works like these nowadays. Johnson uses a largely tonal palette informed with modern chord positions, and moves his motivic material around with virtuosic ease. Swirling winds enter the picture, and there are soft but ominous-sounding background figures played by the brass. At the eight-minute mark, the music increases in volume as louder brass, with timpani, enter the picture. Ziggurats begins with soft, low basses playing a slow but ominous-sounding theme over which soft violin tremolos are heard before the slow, somewhat menacing theme enters and is developed. These are clearly well-written pieces, but they do contain a few moments of bombast. A cackling clarinet is heard very high up in its range as growling trombones and, yes, more timpani come in and the string figures slow down but become louder and edgier. These are, overall, interesting pieces that I doubt you’ll ever hear on your local classical insomnia-cure station.

Nor will you hear his Two Elegies for Strings & Harp despite their more tonal bias. This music, too, has some edgy chord positions that will upset those weaned on and acclimated only to pre-1900 Classical and Romantic scores. This work is a cousin of Benjamin Britten’s string pieces of the 1930s. The second of these includes a somewhat faster, louder and edgier passage that is quite interesting.

The opening of the Symphony No. 15, subtitled “Where the Wind is Born,” is also fairly slow, quiet, and edgy in its harmonic movement, but in this case I felt that the theme statement was dragged out a bit too much and said relatively little for the first four minutes. Finally, at 3:54, we get a change in tempo, feeling and theme as rapid, swirling, downward string passages suggest the wind. Judging from this piece, however, I felt that Hackbridge Johnson, though a clever composer, does not work that well in larger forms. Keeping his statements and development to 10-minute structures seems to be far more conducive to his expression than the larger form of the symphony, where he becomes repetitive and says nothing for long stretches of time. This first movement pretty much ends in the middle of nowhere. The second is all swirling strings, biting brass and menacing timpani, in a sense all predictable although cleverly strung together. Biting wind, brass and drum figures enter the picture at about 5:06, and again, it’s fairly effective but overwritten and somewhat predictable. I cut the symphony short because it again went on too long and said very little.

The last piece on this disc, Valse Mérovingienne, is a more interesting piece using interesting bitonal themes that move the harmony around to create strange moods. My mind flashed on a madwoman dancing by herself in the dark, thus I was not surprised to learn that this “is the only surviving material from a discarded ballet, Childeric’s Dream.” It’s a strong finish to a somewhat uneven collection of works. Interesting intermittently, and worth hearing except for the symphony.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Danny Elfman Scores Big in his Violin Concerto

Elfman Violin Concerto

ELFMAN: Violin Concerto, “Eleven Eleven” / Sandy Cameron, vln; Royal Scottish National Orch.; John Mauceri, cond / Piano Quartet / Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin: Daniel Stabrawa, vln; Matthew Hunter, vla; Knut Weber, cello; Markus Groh, pno / Sony Classical 19075869752

This CD is clearly a case of “hang with them and don’t give up if you think they have talent.” Danny Elfman, younger brother of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo founder and cult filmmaker Richard Elfman, has always been, in my view, a brilliant intuitive musician. As Richard once said in an interview, “Little brother Danny was always a nice kid who liked music, but then one day we discovered he was playing all these instruments and writing this brilliant music. It astonished all of us.”

But “little brother Danny” has spent much time writing film soundtracks, which he is clearly very good at but which frustrated his more serious side. As stated on the Sony Classical website:

Elfman has long felt that he had more to give than the music of his film soundtracks. “I don’t merely want to write music that is free from the influence of films,” he says. “Instead, it’s a compelling need.” For several years he has given this urge free rein and composes a work of New Music each year.

But only now has his composing reached a new level which is astonishing for the music world: Two years ago the Prague orchestra requested that he compose a violin concerto for Sandy Cameron. Elfman responded by composing the concerto as his first freestanding orchestral work. That he loves the late Romantic idiom and especially its masters shines through clearly in the violin concerto. But here it’s more like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev have run into the groove of Beetlejuice.

Leave it to a major corporation’s publicity department to try to sell an outstanding piece of classical music by tying it to a commercial film success. Yes, I liked Elfman’s Beetlejuice score in and of itself in relation to the wacky comic film it was written for. Elfman is clearly a gifted film composer; of that, I had no doubt. But to try to sell this absolutely brilliant piece of music based on one of his old film scores is like trying to sell Mieczysław Weinberg’s wonderful orchestral and chamber music based on the cute but simplistic music he wrote for the Winnie the Pooh cartoons that the Soviets turned out in the early 1970s.

What Elfman has done here is more than just turned out a “violin-concerto-to-order.” He has honed his musical gifts to a fine edge and applied them in a completely non-commercial manner to music that is both intelligent and surprising. And truthfully, the Prokofiev reference is more apt than Tchaikovsky for the simple reason that he develops his themes much more along the lines of a Prokofiev concerto, not just in his harmonic choices but also in the rhythmic motifs with which he laces the work, several of which resemble Stravinsky in his neoclassic period. (In an online interview posted on YouTube, Elfman also credits the Shostakovich Violin Concerto which he says was the “template” for his own composition.)

Sony compares the opening theme of the first movement to Tchaikovsky, but this, too, is more like Prokofiev, or perhaps Samuel Barber. Yet Barber’s extended works often lacked the coherence and brilliance of his short ones. I consider Barber to have been a brilliant writer of relatively small pieces, the Adagio for Strings, the Essays for Orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and his marvelous songs. Here, Elfman proves that he can build long structures—the first movement of the violin concerto runs 14 minutes while the second and fourth run over 10—in which the development sections are complex, imaginatively conceived and excellently scored. This is a work that would not have embarrassed Aaron Copland or Howard Hanson, and that’s saying quite a bit.

I think what surprised me the most was how idiomatic his writing for the violin soloist is, even the first-movement cadenza which is built around themes in that movement. Indeed, I’m here to tell you that I’ve heard a ton of modern classical pieces by a wide variety of composers in my career that I refused to review because the music wasn’t nearly as well constructed as this…and some of them were very famous names in the classical world.

The second movement, marked “Spietato,” is very much a cross between Prokofiev and Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, very lively with the kind of moto perpetuo rhythm that the latter composer loved to work with. Once again, Elfman gives virtuosic music to the soloist that ties into the themes and motifs. Nothing is rattled off for show; it all makes perfect musical sense. The third movement, “Fantasma,” is the slow one, and I was relieved to hear that Elfman did not resort to an easy solution. It would have been so easy for a composer of his experience to rely on a sentimental theme, but here he is clearly channeling Copland from his best period in crafting a theme that is simple but malleable, using somewhat modal harmonies as an underpinning and creating a craggy movement that is very emotional but not maudlin. There is also good tensile strength in the solo violin part which, again, fits into the surrounding material without sounding like a “virtuoso-playing-on-top” sort of thing.

In the fourth and last movement (“Giocoso; Lacrimae”), Elfman completely shifts his mood from serious (and, at times, almost brooding) to light and airy. Just as the second half of the first movement and most of the second resembled Stravinsky, this one is a cross between Prokofiev and Barber, but I rush to emphasize that none of the music sounds borrowed from these composers. He is clearly his own man as a writer and inspired enough to construct wholly original themes. At the 5:50 mark, Elfman suddenly explodes in a riot of orchestral color that he ties into the preceding material, and when it quiets down the violin soloist returns to play some very fine variations in a slower tempo. The tempo again increases and, at the 8:05 mark, the violin is again playing a very complex cadenza-like solo that acts more like a section of the orchestra in its development than like a solo distraction. Sandy Cameron is new name to me. She apparently dances, dips, shucks and jives while playing the violin (see her YouTube videos), and even appeared with Cirque du Soleil hanging from a rope by her heels while fiddling, but in a strictly aural venue such as this all I have is her talent to judge. She plays the entire score with great feeling and energy as well as a sensuous tone, and conductor John Mauceri (also new to me) conducts with equal fervor.

danny_elfman_62In the Piano Quartet, Elfman was lucky to get the highly gifted chamber ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement, “Ein Ding,” sounds a bit like minimalism due to its moto perpetuo rhythm in the opening, but Elfman interrupts it with pauses and overlays a long melodic theme played in whole and half notes over it. Rapid string tremolos introduce the development section. Still, the echoes of such minimalist composers as Terry Riley (whose music I like far more than that of Philip Glass) come and go throughout this movement. There are some lovely solos for the three strings, but in this movement, at least, the piano is treated more as a rhythmic motor than as a solo instrument.

“Kinderspott,” the second movement, is bitonal and a bit eerie, making the violinist and violist play on the edge of their strings and giving the piano strange chords which only begin to straighten out at about 1:12 but then return to bitonality as the tempo increases and all four instruments play rapid, upward-rising figures. (Play this movement for your sophisticated classical loving friends without telling them the composer and make them guess. It’ll drive them crazy because the music is so good and original but sounds like no one else.) Interestingly, as the music moves into the third movement, “Duett für Vier,” it almost sounds like an extension of the second: a similar rhythm, if more syncopated here, and themes which are variants of the ones just used. It’s almost as if Elfman had two different ideas on how to develop the music and chose to use both rather than toss one out. Very interesting!

“Ruhig” is the slow fourth movement, again using rhythmic motifs but this time in slow motion. The harmony is also more consonant in this movement although with a few interesting chord changes and altered chord positions thrown in for color. At 1:38, it’s also the slowest movement in the quartet. We end up our journey with the fifth movement, “Die Wolfsjungen,” and here Elfman moves away from the stiff motor rhythms of the first two movements to more syncopated figures. I hesitate to call them jazzy, but only just; played by an American quartet with some jazz experience (i.e., the Turtle Island Quartet), it might sound more so, but even as it stands here it is a lively and fascinating piece that surges forward like a manic Toscanini performance for quartet. It’s also very well developed and, in the final moments, the tempo increases as the players, performing in this movement more as a unit and less as four soloists, surge towards the finish line.

An absolutely astounding disc: superb new music given brilliant performances. I can only hope that this CD garners the serious attention it deserves and is not dismissed as a gimmick. Danny Elfman, as “big brother” Richard once said, has again “astonished all of us.”

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Philadelphia Heritage Art Ensemble Crossing the Bridge

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F. ADAMS: Bossa for Desta. The Interlude. Dance of Six Sense. The Trumpet Song.* MORGAN: Soft Touch. MOBLEY: Three Way Split. Work Out / Fred Adams, tpt; Clifford Adams, tb; James Steward, t-sax; Luke O’Reilly, *Alfie Pollitt, pno; Lee Smith, bs; Craig McIver, dm / Heritage Sound (no number)

The Philadelphia Heritage Art Ensemble is a group dedicated to keeping the hard bop style of the late 1950s and early ‘60s alive. This means the kind of music you heard mostly (but not exclusively) on the old Blue Note label back when Alfred Lion was still running it: the style of Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan etc. To this end, the band’s pianist, tenor saxist and trumpeter-leader all emulate their idols’ styles in their own solo work.

But the band doesn’t just play the old tunes. Trumpeter-leader Fred Adams, as can be seen in the header above, writes a lot of the band’s material in the old style. As can be heard in the opening track, which Adams wrote for his daughter Desta, they also play a bit of bossa nova, albeit in a hard bop style. In this piece, at least, pianist Luke O’Reilly plays a looser, less note-filled solo than one typically heard from Horace Silver, to good effect, but leader-composer Adams is even here strongly reminiscent of his idol Morgan, particularly in his first chorus.

The point, however, is not merely that they resemble their models but that they play highly original solos in a similar mold, which is not the same thing. Thus they are less a tribute band than what they claim in their name, a heritage of the older jazz, And I have to tell you, after slogging through way too many modern-day jazz CDs in which one hears either “ambient” or “lounge” jazz or, worse yet, a rock beat and whiny, flaccid-sounding rock guitars, their brand of jazz is absolutely refreshing. There’s nothing precious about it. Even in a ballad like Lee Morgan’s 6/8 time Soft Touch, what you get is a pure jazz sensibility sans touchy-feely delicacy.  As soon as they move from the ensemble opening theme to Fred Adams’ trumpet solo, the energy level increases and we get a well-conceived and very interesting improvisation that, thankfully, is built as much around the melody line as around the chords. Clifford Adams’ trombone is fluid and fluent with a warm, burry tone, sort of like a cross between J.J. Johnson and Jimmy Knepper (Charles Mingus’ favorite trombonist). Interestingly, in this piece O’Reilly’s piano almost sounds a bit like Bill Evans in one of his more unbuttoned solos. Lee Smith also has a very nice and cleanly played bass solo in this one.

The band also give a slight Latin feel to the opening melody of Hank Mobley’s Three Way Split, although this disappears as soon as James Steward comes flying in on tenor with Smith driving him with his swinging bass. Clifford Adams again reminds one of Knepper and Johnson in his solo (and why not?) and Fred Adams dances lightly on the trumpet. Craig McIver also has a tasteful drum solo, which leads into the final ensemble chorus which diminuendos (but does not use an artificially-created fade-out) to the end.

The Interlude is another ballad, the theme of which is simple but the chords of which are interesting and rather complex, and Dance of Six Sense is yet another ballad. For me, this was a little too much ballad overkill and not very good programming despite the fine solo performances in each, although O’Reilly’s solo in the latter was exemplary and the leader’s trumpet traced a fine filigree around the tune.

We return to the group’s hard-bop roots in Mobley’s very uptempo Work Out, not much of a tune but a real swinger, with the band locked in and driving hard from the first beat to the end. Steward flies on his tenor and Fred Adams plays a surprisingly spaced-out solo, selecting his notes carefully and tastefully. This one also showcases McIver’s drumming, not particularly flashy but with good taste in his solo and plenty of drive behind the rest of the group.

We close out with Adams’ The Trumpet Song, which is (surprise!) another ballad, although this time with a very fine melody line in which the underlying chord sequence includes a rising chromatic to add interest. The solos are good, but not exceptional.

Overall, however, this is clearly an album worth checking out. The band plays with good taste and provides some exceptionally good solo work throughout.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Piano Music of Ramon Lazkano

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LAZKANO: Hitzaurre Bi.1 Petrikhor. Zintzilik.2 Laugarren Bakarrizketa. Bras dessus bras dessous.2,3 Ilargi Uneak / Alfonso Gómez, pno; 2Marta Zabaleta, 3Ramon Lazkano, pno; 1Bilbao Symphony Orch.; 1Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, cond / Kairos 0015041KAI

Ramon Lazkano, born 1968 in San Sebastian/Donostia, the principal city of the Basque region of Spain, is not a Spanish composer in the traditional sense. One will listen in vain for “Spanish tunes” as in the music of Granados, de Falla and others. As a disciple of György Ligeti, Lazkano is out there on his own personal soundcloud, so to speak, and thus produces music that is challenging and non-traditional.

In the liner notes, pianist Alfonso Gómez explains that the reason he has put so much time and energy into Lazkano’s music, playing his entire oeuvre for the keyboard and proselytizing for it, is his fascination with it. “His music, his language, his development as a composer, his fabulous instrumental craft and, of course, his nature, all fasci­nates me,” he writes.

Like Ligeti, Lazcano writes in a dense polyrhythmic and atonal style, but he also (and this is crucial) makes musical sense. His music’s density does not, in the case of so many modern composers who have been presented to me for review, cover a lack of knowledge of how to write pieces that develop and have structure. Like Ligeti himself, but also like Stravinsky during his 12-tone period, Lazkano knows what he is doing, and the casual listener may be amazed to hear certain things in his music that did not always exist in the music of Ligeti, which are moments of quietude and repose. In this sense he is, to my ears, unique among composers of this school.

In the opening work, written for piano and orchestra, he also reveals his own style of orchestration. Like so many modern composers, he favors brilliant sonorities, emphasizing the high winds and brass, yet unlike many others he knows how to use them delicately rather than like a pile driver. The orchestra complements the piano part; it does not overwhelm it or try to interfere with the ongoing musical development. This marks him as very different from the school of what I call “cheap effect” composers, the first of which was undoubtedly Edgard Varèse. Lazkano’s goal is not simply to startle the listener, but to reach him or her with music that comes from both the mind and the heart. In the second half of Hitzaurre Bi, Lazkano eventually uses a repeated, strong rhythm in the second half, unusual for him, which drives the music to its conclusion.

The remaining pieces on this album are all solo piano except for two which use an extra pianist (or two). The music here is even sparser in expression than Hitzaurre Bi. In Petrikhor, a few repeated little riffs make up most of the opening chorus, after which he adds a few little embellishments as the music develops, breaking up the rhythm with syncopated figures. Nothing in his music is predictable, yet when you hear it, it all makes sense. At about the 5:24 mark, the music suddenly becomes even sparer, now consisting only of a few notes and chords, telling a story as if by intuition and suggestion rather than a full narrative, and later still the music is reduced to just a series of slow, repeated, single A-flats in the middle of the keyboard, occasionally interspersed with other solitary surrounding notes. Thus does this particularly musical journey stumble along.

The very brief (1:40) Zintzilik for piano four hands also starts sparsely, but quickly grows louder and busier as Lazkano explores his sparse theme before falling back to quietude for the finish. In Laugarren Bakarrizketa, he alternates his sparse theme—including moments where the pianist thumps the body of his instrument—with sparkling, Ligeti-like sprinkles of notes, like a small star shower in the dark night.

In the multi-movement Ilargi Uneak, Lazkano shifts the mood again towards busy, Ligeti-like lines in the first section, titled “Izar,” falling back to his sparse style in the second piece, “Ekhi,” he emphasizes staccato chords, while in the third, “Urtzi,” it is a running bass line that sets up a sort of moto perpetuo to begin with before slowing down and returning to his minimal style of sparse notes and chords.

This is surely one of the most unusual CDs of the year. I didn’t like each piece on this disc equally, but I certainly found all of it interesting and thought-provoking, and Gómez is clearly a fine pianist committed to the composer’s aesthetic.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Richter’s Great Bach Orchestral Suites Reissued

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BACH: Orchestral Suites [Overtures} Nos. 1-4, BWV 1066-69 / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / Urania WS 121.375

It’s hard to believe that Karl Richter, at the time of this and other recordings by him (1961), was considered the greatest Bach conductor in the world. Yes, he had competitors, among them Karl Ristenpart, Karl Munchinger, elder statesman Mogens Wöldike and, a few years later, the younger Helmuth Rilling. When I was growing up and getting into classical music I liked them all, but gravitated towards Ristenpart and Rilling because their LPs were less expensive.

But Richter, more so than all the others, suffered the most in the early years of the historically-informed movement spearheaded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt himself never attacked Richter, but the critics sure did. His classic Bach recordings were suddenly considered to be too “heavy,” wrongly phrased, lacking straight tone, blah blah blah, but his real blasphemy was in recording Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. In addition to damning him for using the non-authentic Mozart orchestration, Richter was slammed for his “smooth” phrasing,” by then completely at odds with the new, clipped style that was suddenly considered de rigueur. Richter tried to defend himself, but to no avail. His reputation and career were in ruins. Thus did one of the most gifted and talented of Baroque conductors have his reputation ruined. Already suffering from health problems, he had one heart attack in 1971 but a fatal one ten years later. He was only 54 when he died.

When writing for a classical music magazine, I praised his recording of Mozart’s Requiem as being the most intense and moving ever made, and to a slightly lesser extent I will make a similar claim for these recordings of the Bach Orchestral Suites (often considered to be long, multi-movement overtures). Comparing Richter’s timings of each movement of each suite to the famous performance by Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra, we find that all the “overtures” to the suites are longer, which is almost predictable (most Bach conductors of that time took more stately tempi in the overtures), but except for a few other movements, particularly the famous “Air on the G String” (the second movement of the third suite), I discovered that Richter’s pacing was surprisingly similar to Rilling’s if not sometimes faster:

Richter Rilling
Suite 1, 1 8:18 6:24
Suite 1, 2 2:26 2:29
Suite 1, 3 3:23 3:30
Suite 1, 4 1:58 1:22
Suite 1, 5 3:05 3:35
Suite 1, 6 2:37 2:36
Suite 1, 7 3:31 3:37
Suite 2, 1 9:18 7:35
Suite 2, 2 1:54 1:45
Suite 2, 3 4:00 2:19
Suite 2, 4 2:05 1:49
Suite 2, 5 3:29 3:12
Suite 2, 6 1:28 1:16
Suite 2, 7 1:28 1:25
Suite 3, 1 9:08 8:16
Suite 3, 2 5:45 4:58
Suite 3, 3 4:03 3:27
Suite 3, 4 1:15 1:17
Suite 3, 5 3:09 2:47
Suite 4, 1 9:50 9:02
Suite 4, 2 3:02 2:43
Suite 4, 3 2:00 1:54
Suite 4, 4 3:37 3:47
Suite 4, 5 2:43 2:42

The differences one hears are those of phrasing and a facet of Baroque performance that has virtually disappeared in the HIP era, orchestral color. Although most of Richter’s orchestral textures were bright, which is of course appropriate, he did not shy away from softening the string tone to produce an extraordinarily opaque sound, both delicate and haunting, when he felt the music called for it. Apparently the modern Religion of Straight Tone considers this a heresy of the worst sort. All string passages must sound virtually the same whether loud or soft. And of course Richter’s phrasing was varied as well. There are several moments, even in the slower movements, where he separated the notes to give the music a more definite rhythm, but he was not averse to using a fine legato when he deemed it appropriate. This, too, is considered heresy today.

Thus, with Richter, we find ourselves in a different aesthetic world but not one that runs counter to our idea of how Baroque music should sound. Conductors of older generations, such as Wöldike, used reduced orchestras and a harpsichord continuo and often played the music as we recognize it today, but just as often phrased more romantically. Wöldike’s tempi also tended, in the recordings I’ve heard (both from the 1930s and the 1950s), to be more relaxed even when his phrasing was clearly in the Baroque style.

Richter Bach

Original LP cover of the Overtures

I bring these issues up in order to explain where Richter was coming from. Of all the non-Baroque specialist conductors who preceded him, Toscanini was probably the closest to correct Baroque phrasing, but there were also some lesser-known musicians who came surprisingly close in earlier decades, for instance British conductor Anthony Bernard in his late-1920s recordings of the Brandenburg Concerti with violinist Samuel Kuitcher, trumpeter Ernest Hall and oboist Leon Goossens. (For that matter, most people don’t even know that Josef Pasternack, a very good but little-known Polish conductor who was Toscanini’s assistant at the Met in 1909 and worked for Victor Records between 1916 and 1927 accompanying Enrico Caruso and other singers on shellac discs, also recorded a surprisingly good Orchestral Suite No. 3 in 1917.)

But Richter had even more to offer the listener in these performances. He used graded rather than terraced dynamics, meaning that he made his crescendos and decrescendos gradually, not suddenly as if falling off a cliff. Put all these things together, and what Richter offers you is Bach as music, not as a succession of clipped sounds in regular rhythm, played by anemic-sounding instruments and pretending to be music. The end result is that, instead of coolly admiring Bach’s counterpoint and mathematical precision, you actually enjoy listening to him. In a piece such as the second half of the Suite No. 2’s overture, for instance, you almost feel like getting up and dancing along with the music, and flautist Aurèle Nicolet, in the “Badinerie” of the Suite No. 2, plays her famous solo almost as well as James Galway (I heard Galway play it live). These performances have so much joy in them that it’s hard to resist. At times you can almost imagine the musicians themselves smiling as they played this music. That’s how infectious it is. Every note seems to come straight from the heart. As a commentator named Nick Morse put it on the YouTube upload of these performances:

The love, the love, the love. A friend recently said “Music gives access to the divine.” These performances are perfectly weighted, timed and delivered. No excessive flourish or emphasis, its musicality is expressed implicitly and all the more powerful and potent as a result.

In addition to all of the above-noted assets, Urania has remastered these old recordings with astonishing presence, brightness and clarity. An undisputed great release, formerly available in a 3-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon that also included the complete Brandenburg Concertos and the Triple Concerto.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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