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

WP 2019 - 2ELFMAN: 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


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


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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WP 2019 - 2BACH: 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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Fricsay Conducts 20th-Century Composers (& Rossini)

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ROSSINI: Il viaggio à Reims: Overture. STRAUSS: Burleske for Piano & Orchestra.* KODÁLY: Dances of Galánta. ZIMMERMANN: Alagoana: Caboclo, Brasilianisches Portrait. HONEGGER: Concertino for Piano & Orchestra.* RAVEL: Bolero / *Margit Weber, pno; Sinfonieorchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / SWR Classic 19070CD (live: Stuttgart, October 10, 1955)

The late Ferenc Fricsay, noted by critics and lay listeners alike for his invigorating performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, was also a fan of modern music and he conducted as much of it as he could. His surviving recordings and live performances include music by Frank Martin (excerpts from La vin herbé) and Bartók.

In this program we get a very interesting mixture of composers, the common thread being that it is all “light” music by each of them. In the case of Rossini, this is a given; he rarely wrote anything that was deep; but in the case of Kodály, Honegger and especially Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a composer who would soon become an outcast in the classical world for his dense, thick textures and convoluted harmonies, these are relatively light works.

As a Hungarian, Fricsay’s conducting style was tight, straightforward and no-nonsense. He favored brisk tempi as a rule, and most of them were appropriate for the material he played. Years before Krips and Erich Kleiber recorded their “classic” Mozart opera sets, it was Fricsay who really set the pace for what was to become the historically-informed Mozart style of today. The downside was that Fricsay wasn’t a fan of subtle modifications to the musical line, as his predecessors Weingartner, Mitropoulos, Rodziński and Toscanini were. Thus, in a piece like the then-quite rare Il viaggio à Reims overture, we get a brisk, crisp reading without the subtle modifications that previous conductors put into Rossini, yet there are some really nice delicate moments where the South German Radio Orchestra plays extremely well for him. The difference between this performance and what we hear today, of course, is that he uses a full modern string section, and it is quite sumptuous, though he does bring out some wonderful detail in the rhythmic string figures at about the 5:35 mark, and he clearly understands the “Rossini crescendo.”

Yet Fricsay really comes into his own in the Strauss Burleske, a crisp, brilliant performance, played with a surprising amount of sparkle by the little-known pianist Margit Weber. The nice thing about this, as in the Rossini, is that Fricsay eliminates all traces of sentimentality from the music; everything is neat, driving and structurally integrated. There is no mawkish “Romanticism” in this late-Romantic work, and this is all to the better. His performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta has a similar profile to Toscanini’s, only with a richer string sound and not as much clarity of detail in the winds. All in all, however, it’s a great rendition.

It would be nice to say that Zimmermann’s Alagoana fits into this style of music, but although it is a “light” piece by his standards, it does not. The harmonic basis is too clashing and modernistic and, oddly enough, there seems to be a jazz swagger in the music that I’ve never heard from him before. What amazed me was how well Fricsay grasped this very forward-looking  music and took the whole score in stride. Of his contemporaries, Mitropoulos is the only one who comes to mind who could have pulled this off as well at that period of time.

Fricsay also has no problem with the somewhat more harmonically accessible but still rhythmically tricky Piano Concertino by Arthur Honegger, and once again Weber plays the piano part with great flair and style. The way Fricsay brings out the pizzicato bass line at 6:45 put me in mind of a jazz bassist.

The real disappointment here, as it usually is, is Ravel’s Bolero, taken (as usual) at too fast a tempo and with none of the swagger that Ravel himself wanted and put into his own recording with the Lamoreaux Orchestra. The only other performances I’ve heard of it which are played at the correct tempo and with the right swagger are those of Toscanini (believe it or not!) from 1939 and Simon Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham orchestra. But I think this would have been too much to ask of the literal-minded Fricsay.

Overall, then, a good album. By and large, SWR Classic has done a good job in cleaning up these old mono radio tapes, though the top range sounds just a bit too covered to my ears.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Mints & Kobrin Play Hindemith

QTZ2132 - cover

COMPLETE WORKS FOR VIOLIN & PIANO / HINDEMITH: Violin Sonatas, Op. 11 Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano, “Kleine Sonate.” Violin Sonata in E (1935). Trauermusik. Meditation from the Ballet “Noblissima Visione.” Violin Sonata in C (1939) / Roman Mints, vln; Alexander Kobrin, pno / Quartz QTZ 2132

Hindemith’s music for violin and piano was intermittently written over a period of 21 years, and none but the first two sonatas were numbered works, yet the full oeuvre remains a vital and interesting body of work. Roman Mints, by his own admission “wasn’t really meant to become a violinist…None of my family played, except a self-taught great-uncle, who I never knew. When my mother’s friend, our neighbor, took her son to enroll in music school, my mother asked if she would take me along: maybe they’d let me join too,” yet he surely is a very fine player in the modern sense, i.e., a bright, strong tone and clean, no-nonsense phrasing. Pianist Alexander Kobrin is also a very good musician, sometimes compared to the late Van Cliburn, and together they give us strong performances—though, at times, leaning too much in the direction of “straight tone,” which occasionally drains the music of its expressive power in slow sections.

Thus one will listen in vain throughout the first sonata for rich tone and expressive qualities of David Oistrakh, who played this sonata during his heyday. Why Mints found it necessary or even appropriate to use straight tone in 20th-century works is utterly beyond my understanding, but there it is: dry, lusterless, and lacking body in the slow movements, albeit brisk and energetic in the fast movements. And yet, in the liner notes, Mints says that the thing that caught him up with Hindemith was his “romanticism,” the “exaggerated emotions, the endless German directions like Schumann’s.” Go figure.

I liked all of the fast movements because both Mints and Kobrin give their all, but if you go back and listen to the historical 1920s recordings of Hindemith’s own Amar String Trio and Quartet playing his own works (as well as Beethoven), you will hear a very fast, light vibrato used on all sustained tones. This is what the composer wanted in his music, and this is what he (on viola) and his fellow-musicians delivered.

Occasionally Mints does play with a fast, light vibrato, however, as in the slow movement of the Op. 11 No. 2 sonata, and this enriches his sound a bit, so apparently it’s not a constant with him. He also brings his very energetic approach to bear on the later works as well as the early ones, and by the time of the 1922 Sonata for Violin d’Amore & Piano we begin to hear a very different Hindemith from those first two numbered sonatas—even, or perhaps especially, in the slow movements which have become more harmonically modern and rich in texture. I would even go so far as to say that the slow movement of this sonata is deeper music than the slow sections of the earlier works, and here again Mints seems to vacillate between straight tone and the kind of light vibrato that Hindemith preferred, which is all to the good. Yet he returns to straight tone in the beginning of the third movement of this sonata and the first movement of the Sonata in E, for what reason only Mints knows.

And yet there is that constant undercurrent of vitality and energy that drives these performances, and comparing Mints to a number of other modern violinists who have recorded these sonatas, among them Doris Wolff-Malm, Ulf Wallin, Eliot Lawson, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Ulf Hoelscher, everyone else sounds pale by comparison, mostly due to the lack of emotional involvement of their pianists but partly due to the violinists’ inability or unwillingness to play this music with strong emotion. Thus I found myself in a quandary, disliking portions of these performances but generally approving of their approach, and make no mistake, Kobrin’s playing is a major factor in this. Thank God you can’t play straight-tone piano!

Mints returns to playing with vibrato in the lovely Meditation with good results, and both he and Kobrin are absolutely explosive in the late (1939) C Major sonata that follows. It’s a somewhat strange set, then; primarily very good, but with several annoying straight-toned passages that just don’t seem to fit in.

I might hold off adding these sonatas to my collection until I find a better recording, but whose? None that I’ve heard are any good, and this one, at least, has plenty of energy.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jean Guillou Plays his Own Music


GUILLOU: Fantaisie Concertante.2 Toccata. Ballade. Hyperion ou la rethorique du feu. Peace.3 La chapelle des abimes. Aube.3 Symphonie Initiaque. Andromeda.9 Suite pour Rameau. Éloge. Säya ou l’Oiseau Bleu. Sinfonietta. Colloques Nos. 54 & 44,5. Fête.6 Fantaisie. Intermezzo.7 Scènes d’Enfants. Sagas Nos. 1-6. 18 Variations. Alice au pays de l’orgue.8 Jeux d’Orgue. Saga No. 7. Ballade No. 2, “Les chants de Selma.” MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Guillou). RACHMANINOV: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (arr. Guillou)1 / Jean Guillou, 1Hanka Yekimova, 7Livia Mazzanti, org; 2Alexander Kniazev, cel; 3Groupe Vocal de France; 4Philippe Gueit, pno; 5Daniel Ciampolini, Vincent Bauer, perc; 6Daniel Gilbert, cl; 7Andrea Montefoschi, fl; 8François Castang, narr; 9Kiyoko Okada, sop / Universal Music Classics 00028948037247 (available at GoBuz: https://www.qobuz.com/gb-en/interpreter/jean-guillou/download-streaming-albums)

Jean Victor Arthur Guillou, who died January 26, 2019 at the age of 88, was one of the greatest organists of all time, yet he came to recording rather late in life. Before then, however, he was practically a legend in France as organist, sometimes pianist, composer, pedagogue and organ builder. Among his many talents was the ability to improvise, which was and still is a lost art for the majority of classical organists (and pianists).

When I reviewed his boxed set of Bach’s organ works several years ago for a major music magazine, I raved about his performances, noting not only the incredible energy he displayed even as an old man but also his phrasing, ability to color phrases, and yes, occasionally improvise even within a piece by Bach. I was ripped to shreds by my “fellow critics” and readers of the magazine. How DARE I praise an organist who 1) was not playing Bach on an “authentic” organ from the 18th century, and 2) had the audacity to occasionally improvise? But, as usual, they were wrong in their thinking. J.S. Bach himself was a noted improviser on the organ, particularly in his own works. As for the wheezy little instrument he had to play on in Leipzig, he hated it. Bach delighted in making “organ tours” of other churches and cathedrals, and was especially happy when he ran across organs that were not only larger but more modern and had more colors and stops. (One of his favorites was the bell or carillon stop in one organ he played. He couldn’t get enough of it.)

This 7-CD set of Guillou playing a large number of his own works dates from 2015, but seems to be a curious release. No one online has reviewed it, and I’ve only found one outlet that is actually selling it, but am here to tell you that this music is absolutely fabulous: imaginative and inventive, using modern harmonies and the full range of color available to him on his own organ built to his specifications. In the first piece, Fantaisie Concertante, he is joined by Russian cellist Alexander Kniazev, and in some others by the Groupe Vocal de France directed by John Poole. Other instrumentalists also make their appearance in this set, such as pianist Philippe Gueit in Colloque No. 5, Gueit and two percussionists in Colloque No. 6, clarinetist Daniel Gilbert in Fête and both flautist Andrea Montefoschi and second organist Livia Mazzanti in Intermezzo.

Trying to describe Guillou’s compositions from a technical standpoint is a bit tricky and difficult. Although he uses a strict musical form, his melodic lines are slithery, often predicated by the constantly shifting harmony underneath. This harmonic movement is both horizontal and vertical; those readers who have a grasp of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization will know exactly what I mean. As Nadia Boulanger once said, she heard “all of music” in her head, and to an extent that was how Guillou’s mind worked. In fact, considering the brilliant—and I do mean brilliant—lines and structures of his compositions (had he written for a full orchestra he could not have done better or been more complex), it’s almost a wonder that he could focus in on the structures of Bach.

Yet, and this is the peculiar part of it, there is a connection between the two. The only big difference is that Bach wrote mostly within conventional harmony, the “well-tempered” system of the claviers and organs of his day, whereas Guillou has taken than form and blown it wide open. Ah, but you should also recall that Bach’s second-oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, did the same thing, Trained by his father to hear “everything” within music, C.P.E. Bach blew the harmonic system of his time open to remarkable harmonic structures that his father dared not experiment in if he wanted to keep his job as the Thomaskantor of Leipzig—yet he did indeed indulge in some strange harmonies in his Art of Fugue. Also please remember, strange as it may sound, that Arnold Schoenberg also came out of Bach. The differences lie in these different composers’ temperaments. C.P.E. Bach, once he left Berlin for Hamburg, turned his musical imagination loose on a large and sometimes bewildering array of keyboard solos, symphonies and concerti, influencing both Beethoven and Gluck with his highly imaginative use of harmony and unusual orchestral timbres. Guillou, being a Frenchman of the 20th century, was absolutely prodigious in his assimilation of music of all streams, particularly, it seems to me, modern French music with and without the influence of Stravinsky.

Without a booklet, I don’t know when each of these works was written, but they sound so much all of a piece stylistically that it almost doesn’t matter. Although he occasionally uses the pedals, his music is generally not bass-heavy, and often he juxtaposed themes as well as timbral colors the way a master orchestrator would. There is only a slight resemblance in his music to that of another famous organist-composer of his time, Olivier Messiaen, and this is to the good. Whereas Messiaen’s often thick bitonal and atonal chords, overlaid on one another, created a sinister feeling (I’d almost call it a creepy feeling) in his organ works, Guillou’s aesthetic is tied more to the work of such predecessors as Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor. The Widor influence is especially notable in a work such as the Ballade No. 1, where Guillou opens all the stops to create an almost surround-sound musical world, and he was indeed fortunate to have lived at the time of digital recording. Poor Widor only made six sides in 1932; at least they were electrical, but clearly not even close to the high-fidelity era.

I reviewed the first two CDs of this set through headphones because the other resident of my home was sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb her, and I’m glad I did. As much as you will hear through a really good home audio system, you hear even more through the headphones. Both will make you feel as if you are present at a Guillou recital, but through headphones you almost seem to be sitting in the front row, hearing a master musician at work. In a multi-movement, multi-layered piece such as Hyperion, ou La rethorique du feu, Guillou envelops the listener in an extremely complex web of rapid figures played in contrasting rhythms and a method of bitonality that keeps you in flux from start to finish, yet you never lose track of what he is doing or where the music is going.  Indeed, his music is so brilliant as well as complex that it will take you a few listening to catch all of the things that are going on, except in the slowest movements where he relaxes his pace enough to focus on just three things at a time instead of five or six. I almost imagined that his musical mind must never have shut down, not even when he was asleep. Someone on this high of a genius level must have been hell to live with.

And yet, no matter how complex his music becomes, the amazing thing is that you can follow everything. This is partly due to the fact that his compositions keep everything clear whereas Messiaen often congested them with thick and undecipherable chords. That is the main reason why I prefer Messiaen’s piano and orchestral works; in those, even the densest music is made clear, in the case of the former due to the nature of the piano and in the case of the latter due to the timbral differences of orchestral sections. But it is also due to the fact that Guillou wanted all of his lines to stand out, thus he generally used very bright timbres had had an unusually crisp attack on the organ—not dissimilar from, believe it or not, the way Fats Waller played the pipe organ. The least bit of smearing or sluggishness in his fingering and some of the detail would have been lost, but Guillou had fingers of steel and extraordinary coordination of both hands.

Guiillou in action

Guillou in action

In the choral-organ works, he took a page from Lili Boulanger in his writing for chorus, sometimes using contrapuntal vocal effects to (again) keep the lines clear. He also used his organ as an accompanist to the vocal lines, simplifying his approach so as not to clutter it up too much. Andromeda is a perfect example of his modus operandi: after a very fast and busy opening section, he slows things down to allow the solo soprano to sing her strophic lines (mostly within a one-octave span, though later with extensive leaps upward and downward), saving his busiest and loudest passages for the interludes. The text is based on a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, another poem of whose was also used for Peace:

NOW Time’s Andromeda on this rock rude,

With not her either beauty’s equal or

Her injury’s, looks off by both horns of shore,

Her flower, her piece of being, doomed dragon’s food.

Time past she has been attempted and pursued                   

By many blows and banes; but now hears roar

A wilder beast from West than all were, more

Rife in her wrongs, more lawless, and more lewd.


Her Perseus linger and leave her to her extremes?—

Pillowy air he treads a time and hangs                                   

His thoughts on her, forsaken that she seems,

All while her patience, morselled into pangs,

Mounts; then to alight disarming, no one dreams,

With Gorgon’s gear and barebill, thongs and fangs.

Guillou’s Suite pour Rameau sounds nothing like Rameau at all except for one section, yet for the most part this music is somewhat subdued for him, not as wild or energetic as usual. The same can also be said of Éloge or Praise which is a really strange piece, more questioning without getting any answers, with a sudden swell of volume and increase of tempo at the four-minute mark, receding again about a half-minute later. Yet the music builds to a longer crescendo between the eight and nine-minute mark, after which the music becomes much more hectic, with Guillou scrambling to get all the notes in on his multiple keyboards (and pedals).

One of the more fascinating mind-games one can play with this set is to wonder, considering Guillou’s high reputation as an improviser, how much of this music is written and how much is “off the cuff.” I would think that all of the pieces including other instrumentalists or voices are fully composed, but in the solo works there may very well be passages—several of them, in fact—where Guillou was playing in an extemporé fashion. Since my access to this album did not include the booklet, I can’t say with certainty, but I’d be very surprised if all of it were written out in advance of performance.

The two pieces titled Colloque are piano-organ duets, with No. 4 also including a pair of percussionists. No. 5, which is performed first on the CD, almost sounds like minimalism in the beginning, though the music quickly begins to develop and one realizes that it’s just a very pointillistic piece. The tempo increases, first in the piano part and then in the organ, then falls back to the initial slow tempo. Part of the music sounds 12-tone but not serial, but it soon settles into Guillou’s more familiar bitonal sound world. Later on in the piece, things become faster and much more complex, yet once again Guillou’s crisp attack and phenomenal agility keeps the lines from becoming muddy or unclear even at blistering speeds. In Fête, Guillou decided to include a clarinet, certainly one of the least likely instruments to play with an organ. The music is more “serrated” than usual for him, emphasizing that instrument’s ability to play fast passages that jump around rather than following a linear melodic pattern. The organ plays a curiously syncopated passage around the 5:48 mark that has a certain resemblance to jazz, something quite unusual for Guillou, and this feeling continues into the ensuing organ-clarinet duet passage. And, as noted earlier, Intermezzo features both a flautist and a second organist.

young Guillou

Young Jean Guillou, c. 1962

Although Guillou definitely had certain patterns that were used in many of his pieces, he varied them enough rhythmically, harmonically and especially melodically to create the feeling of having a varied compositional style. This is not easy to do, particularly when you’re working in an atonal or bitonal idiom; it’s always easier to play “follow-the-leader” rather than create your own style. It is to Guillou’s great credit that despite the huge number of works presented here, he managed to keep his powers of invention up. It would have been so easy for a composer of his genius—and I most definitely consider him a genius—to just cookie-cutter his music the way Mozart and Donizetti did. Colloque No. 4, the one with piano and two percussionists, often has a feel similar to George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, yet even here he pulls back from the moto perpetuo feeling to present some slow, moody passages in a stark contrast. And note that among the percussion instruments is a vibraphone, normally considered a jazz instrument, yet used here in a purely classical manner. Indeed, as the music evolves it becomes progressively quieter rather than louder, creating an otherworldly ambience that envelops the listener—at least up until about 13:12 into the piece, when a riot of timpani and snare drums reawakens the explosive energy of the opening passages.

Scenes d’enfants is a particularly wild ride on the organ, quickly assuming a rapid pace after the somewhat slow introduction. Guillou’s crisp attack is especially noticeable here as he scurries across his multiple keyboards, creating a virtual whirlwind of sound in the opening minutes. Yet, as the music develops, other themes and moods enter the picture, creating a soundscape of alternately lyrical and serrated themes, sometimes surging forward with the pedals and sometimes hanging back with bizarre floated chords. Saga No. 2 surges from the very start like an oncoming tornado or a runaway freight train, then eases up at 1:44 so that Guillou can ruminate on the organ using circular figures—yet another aspect of his various styles—before resuming freight train mode at about 2:40. The opening of Saga No. 3 sounds almost, but not quite, like Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Of his extended organ theater-piece-with-narration, Alice au pays de l’orgue, Guillou wrote:

“Ever since my earliest encounters with the organ, I have always considered the organ stops—that is, various different registers of the instrument—as resembling a collection of living beings, their character corresponding less with the form of the sound they produce. Certainly the very shape of some pipes is such that it can give rise to what is almost a psychoanalytical interpretation; thus the idea occurred to me quite naturally of bringing these different stops to life in a kind of musical story, with an accompanying narrative to introduce them and their individual sounds as sentient beings endowed with the power of movement. Lewis Carroll and his heroine Alice offered an ideal framework for a dramatization of my musical idea. Thus I imagined Alice retracing the steps which took her through the looking-glass and, this time, stepping into world quite different from that of the chessboard, a world with no Queen, no Tweedledee, no Humpty Dumpty, but with organ stops brought to life as animated flowers, with dancing Flutes, oboes, chattering Bourdons, pedantic Bombardes, biting Cromornes, rugged Clarinettes or harsh, snake-like Ranquettes. This entire universe sets itself in motion and gradually takes shape, suggesting snippets of dances or conversations in such a way that a sort of symphonic poem is built up, featuring contrasting or challenging sequences in which certain figures and themes recur with, after a strange moment of calm, ends in a wild outburst with all the stops combining in a feverish and dazzling frenzy. Alice in Organ Land may equally well be performed without the Narrator, by giving the audience the text to read, or, again, by playing just the two Waltzes together with Tarantella, or even the Tarantella alone. In this case, the pauses marked become simply a bar’s rest, without a longer pause.”

Whatever this guy was on, I want some, and I want it NOW!

Indeed, Guillou’s music is so dense and challenging that I strongly recommend that you not listen to more than two CDs complete and in order at a time. Like the music of J.S. Bach and Art Tatum, its complexity and density will overtax your mind if you indulge in too much at one sitting.

As for his organ transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I honestly didn’t like it. For whatever reason, Guillou chose lower ranges for several pieces, such as Gnomus, that didn’t work because the sound was too muddy. Since I really enjoyed his organ transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, this was a major shock and disappointment for me. For even more of his genius, I recommend the fascinating album of his improvisations on Doian Sono Luminus DOR-90101 as a substitute for disc 7 of this set.

Despite the more conventional works by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov, this is clearly not your father’s or your grandfather’s classical organ record set. Highly recommended.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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