Enter Our “Cheerful Chaconne” Contest!

chaconne

Hey, all you Millennial composers out there: here’s a contest you’re sure to like! Write your very best “cheerful chaconne,” enter it via email, and you will win a prize…guaranteed, because I’m handing out Participation Trophies courtesy of the prestigious Scherman-Peabody Institute. In addition, I am in contact with no less than 32 classical music labels, each of which is just waiting for a composer to come along and write such a piece that they can add to their latest “Meditate With Mozart” CD, and at least 50 classical music stations in the U.S.A. who will add your chaconne to their “Relax with Rachmaninov” evening listening schedule!

This should be as easy for you as falling off a log since a chaconne is nothing more than a short chord progression using a repetitive bass line over which you write your own melodic inventions. For you folks, writing something like this will be as easy as racking up student loan debt, but much more fun! Heck, since most of you are into minimalism and writing music that puts people to sleep, you should be able to come up with multiple cheerful chaconnes!

Here are the simple rules:

1)  The moving bass line should be no more than two bars long.
2)  The harmonic progression must be tonal, and preferably something that people hear in their pop music and can hum.
3)  Your variations must be simple and simplistic. No going out of the tonal base, and nothing more complex than a few little decorations.
4)  The melodic line must be something that even Celine Dion can sing.
5)  If you add words to the melody, making it a sung chaconne, it must be about something positive. Bunnies, hugs, rainbows and unicorns would be appropriate.
6) Your cheerful chaconne must be no longer than two minutes and change—nothing so complicated that it makes people think.

Even if your cheerful chaconne doesn’t win a prize, you can always play it (and/or sing it) when you have a house guest who is feeling sad and needs a safe space. Or you can pick up your own spirits by shoving your chaconne where the sun doesn’t shine to make that dark space happier!

trophySend all sound files to my e-mail address (posted on the home page) as well as your contact information. Please allow six to eight weeks for judging. Your Participation Trophy, which is a virtual trophy, will be e-mailed to you as soon as possible. The winning entry will be whisked by bicycle to Orange, New Jersey, where you will be the judge in a chicken-cleaning contest before your chaconne is submitted to the 32 classical CD labels and 50 classical radio stations for consideration.

Any chaconne with even a smidgen of dissonance will be disqualified. You won’t even get your participation trophy if you modulate the wrong way.

Good luck!

(Note: This post is a satire.)

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The Belcea Quartet Plays Janáček & Ligeti

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JANÁČEK: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. LIGETI: String Quartet No. 1, “Metamorphoses Nocturnes” / Alpha Classics 454

As my regular readers know, I consider the Belcea Quartet to be one of the finest such groups in the world right now. Their performances of almost everything they do are tight, exciting and brilliantly played. With that being said, however, I must admit that none of their recordings, except for the Brahms String Quartets and Piano Quintet, are of a quality that surpasses other versions on the market.

Why this is has, I think, more to do with the fact that they often follow other outstanding recordings of various string quartets and that their interpretations, though always valid, do not necessarily surpass those other versions. Now, please understand that this is not a negative comment on Belcea’s quality so much as it is possibly just bad timing.

On this recording, I found their approach to the Janáček Quartets, which are among my very favorite of his works and also among my favorite string quartets, period, to combine energy with elegance. In this respect they are rather different from the brilliant performances of the Quartetto Energie Nove, whose recordings of these same quartets I praised so highly three years ago. The difference lies in the phrasing, particularly in the first (“Kreutzer”) quartet of 1923, which is gentler than that of the other recording. They bring a greater feeling of intimacy to the music that I find appealing, although in a direct A/B comparison I feel a greater attraction to Quartetto Energie Nove’s approach.

But of course there are always different ways of hearing the same music, and what Belcea does here is clearly valid. The only drawback of their interpretation, in my mind, is that it does not pull the structure of the quartet together quite as tightly. In addition, I liked Energie Nove’s brighter, leaner sonority which has an edgier quality. Belcea finds some of this edginess in the second and fourth movements of Quartet No. 1 but, to a certain extent, it sounds more like a very good rehearsal, lacking the excitement of a live performance. In this respect, their recording is closer in feeling to the honorable, older performances of the Smetana Quartet. Nonetheless, I’m sure there will be some listeners who prefer their sweeter tone and will not mind this because Belcea does bring a greater intimacy to the music.

Indeed, they bring a similar aesthetic to the second quartet, subtitled “Intimate Letters,” which reflects Janáček’s late-in-life love affair with Kamile Stösslova. Here, this sort of approach may indeed seem more appropriate, as it expresses the composer’s most intimate feelings towards her, and to my ears the structure of the work is better served here than in the first quartet. One may also appreciate Belcea’s warmer sound more in this work. As for me, I still lean towards Quartetto Energie Nove but can also appreciate this version on its own terms.

Rather than include another work by Janáček, the Belcea Quartet chose to end this recording with György Ligeti’s first quartet, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” Here, too, they bring a greater lyricism to the music than is commonly heard, which I liked as an alternative though not quite as much as I liked the Arditti String Quartet’s recording on Sony Classical. Belcea does, however, achieve a nice, bouncing rhythm in the fast section that begins just before the seven-minute mark.

Bottom line: nice performances that will clearly appeal to some listeners, just not necessarily to me. I just don’t respond to touchy-feely.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Amazing Elton Britt

Elton Britt

James Elton Baker, known professionally as Elton Britt, was in my view the greatest of all country and western singers. He had a high, natural tenor voice, as beautiful as those of Dennis Day or Roy Orbison but without the mannerisms of either. Like them, he possessed an amazing high range, part falsetto and part voix mixte, to which he allied a perfect legato and astonishing breath control. Like most country singers who came up before 1950 he yodeled, but even in this he was a virtuoso. His yodels had the sharply etched clarity of an Alpine singer, and he could maintain that high range with a breath control as good as that of John McCormack in his prime. In addition, his voice had warmth and exuded friendliness, and he kept his voice intact over an astonishing 42-year career.

elton-britt-someday-rca-victor-78-sSo why isn’t he better remembered? In part, it was because he didn’t have a great stage presence. He only appeared in two films (there are rumors of a third, but it was never made) and the clip I’ve seen of the first, where he sang Chime Bells, he looks about as comfortable onscreen as a nervous waiter who brought the wrong plate to a customer. Another reason was that, once he stopped singing, he had no personality. He couldn’t schmooze with the audience the way Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold or Roy Clark could. In addition, though he wrote some of his own songs, almost none of them became hits. His repertoire included a good number of pop tunes that he simply sang in a country style. And finally, he was always a little behind most new trends in country music whereas his much younger colleague Hank Williams was ahead of them. All of this added up to a fairly frustrating career despite his being signed to a major label (RCA Victor) for 19 years (1937-1956) and producing one real blockbuster hit, the rather dated World War II song There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.

Jackass BluesWhen I was growing up and beginning to expand my listening to classical music and jazz, I also turned, briefly, to country music. There was this little AM radio station, I think from Hackensack or the Meadowlands, with a weak frequency that wasn’t always easy to pick up in my hometown of West Paterson, New Jersey, but pick it up I did. In addition to playing contemporary records like Jerry Wallace’s Diamonds and Horseshoes, the Statler Brothers’ Flowers on the Wall, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold and Buck Owens, they also played country oldies like Kenny Roberts’ I Never See Maggie Alone, Hank Williams discs and, yes, the occasional Elton Britt record. It was there that I got my first taste of him (as well as Hank Sr.) and thus, when I got out of high school for the day, I’d go to the record store near my bus stop where I picked up The Best of Britt and Yodel Songs. Of course I didn’t like all the material on these records, but one thing jumped out at me, and that was his superiority to any other country singer I’d ever heard in terms of vocal control and expression.

But, as I learned much later on, Britt had another quirk, and that was retiring and unretiring from show business through the 1950s and ‘60s. Even though he had a modest hit for the ABC-Paramount label in 1965, Home Sweet Homesick Blues, I somehow never heard that on the country radio station I listened to—and I never caught his one live appearance on the Jimmy Dean TV show where he sang that and a few other tunes. I thought Britt’s career was pretty much over by the time I discovered him.

In addition, Britt almost never gave interviews or appeared anywhere except onstage to sing. As stated in an excellent article on him by W.K. McNeil and Louis Hatchett, “He was a very private person offstage and never comfortable with the idea of stardom. Once he stepped offstage, his charisma vanished, and he reverted to that of a quite normal human being. As someone who got to know him once said, ‘He could have been a bus driver.’” A sickly child, what we now call a “blue baby,” Britt, or James Elton Baker, just barely survived infancy. In fact, he was so sick that his parents didn’t even name him until he was more than a year old; until then, they just called him “Cute” or “Cutie.” He was named James after his father and Elton after Dr. Elton Wilson, who kept him alive. But by age ten he was playing the guitar and at age 14 became fascinated by the singing style of Jimmie Rodgers, whose first Victor records began to appear. Rodgers inspired him to become a singer himself. He made his professional debut in 1930 at age 17 with the Beverly Hill Billies (yes, there was such a group name, decades before the famous TV comedy program that recycled it) and it was while with them that Glen Rice, an employee of the McMillan Oil Company which sponsored their broadcasts, convinced James Baker to change his professional name to Elton Britt.

Unlike many “hillbilly” singers, as they were known before the term was changed to country & western, Britt took his singing very seriously. In order to build up his breath control, he swam underwater for long periods of time, holding his breath—something that the famed Mexican trumpet player Rafael Mendez also did. He also worked very hard on his yodeling abilities, developing a clear, pure tone that easily surpassed that of his idol Rodgers and even the later Williams. In addition to Star-Spangled Banner, his hits for RCA included Someday, Detour, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Candy Kisses, Mockin’ Uranium FeverBird Hill and, at the height of the early R&B era, an excellent cover version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind. Some of his 1940s records had a backup band that included strings and brass instruments, more like that of contemporary pop records but without drums, which were then considered taboo in country music. (Only Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys had the audacity to flaunt that convention during the 1940s.) At one point in the ‘50s, Britt even mined for uranium, which led to his wife Penny writing the song Uranium Fever for him.

A couple of years after leaving RCA Victor, Britt came “out of retirement” again and signed with ABC-Paramount. His first album for them was a collection of stereo remakes of many of his RCA hits of which one, Chime Bells, was a distinct improvement on the original. But then he “retired” again to run for president in 1960, a move that was viewed as a publicity gimmick. Out East, in New Jersey, I wasn’t even aware that he had run for president.

Home Sweet HomesickBritt came back for at least two more good-selling hit records, neither of which I was aware of at the time. The first was Home Sweet Homesick Blues in 1965 and the second, from 1968, was a seven-minute track called The Jimmie Rodgers Blues in which he paid tribute to the man who had inspired his career. Britt suffered a heart attack while driving his car on June 22, 1972, five days short of his 59th birthday, and died in a Pennsylvania hospital the next day. Ironically for the man who lived so much of his private life in the shadows, his death was scarcely noticed by the national press.

But listen to recordings like Maybe I Was Wrong, Chime Bells or any of his other hits and you’ll hear just how good Britt was as a singer. There are a great many classical tenors (and countertenors) who could take lessons from him in terms of diction, purity of tone, expression, breath control and vocal management. He was truly one of a kind.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Zier Romme Quartet Tells Stories

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STORIES / PEARSON: New Girl. HANCOCK: Tell Me a Bedtime Story. Empty Pockets. COREA: Tones for Joan’s Bones. NORMANN: Noget om Helte (Something About Heroes). BURGE-ROBINSON: A Portrait of Jennie. BERLIN: Watch Your Step. T. JONES: Quietude / Zier Romme Quartet: Romme, pno; Pelle von Bülow, gtr (except on Watch Your Step); Rune Fog-Nielsen, bs; Rodney Green, dm / Storyville SVL1014318

Pianist Zier Romme is described in the publicity release for this disc as “one of tomorrow’s Danish jazz stars,” so apparently his time has not yet come, but I’m going to review his CD now instead of tomorrow anyway!

Romme may indeed be a jazz star of tomorrow, but his style is decidedly retro. The opening selection, Duke Pearson’s New Girl, sounds like a cross between the George Shearing group of the early ‘50s and simplified Oscar Peterson. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, and for all my readers who know how much I hate “soft” jazz guitarists, I’m very pleased to tell you that Pelle von Bülow is not one of them. Except on ballads like Tell Me a Bedtime Story, he plays with a gutsiness that reminded me of Charlie Byrd or Barney Kessel, and—at least to my ears—it sounds much of the time like an early electric guitar, the kind that had more of the sound of steel in the strings or even the kind of pre-Fender microphone pickups they had in the very early 1950s. I like that kind of sound, a lot.

And, indeed, von Bülow plays the opening solo chorus on Tell Me a Bedtime Story, and a fine one it is, too—in fact, even more inventive that Romme’s meandering contribution in his first solo. I wonder if the guitarist is in some way related to the famous classical music von Bülow family of the 19th century? It’s not really that common of a name in Germany or Austria. Romme’s second solo is more interesting but, again, somewhat circumspect in its range and expression.

The band assumes a really nice, laid-back tempo and feel on Empty Pockets, and again the crisp, clean and inventive lines of von Bülow are a delight. Romme’s solo on this one is bluesy and fairly interesting. Drummer Rodney Green has a brief (2-bar) solo in this one as well, and can be heard supporting the others very well otherwise.

As the CD continues, however, it becomes more and more apparent that von Bülow is the real star of this show. Yes, Romme can play the piano quite well, but he’s not as interesting or as consistently inventive as the guitarist, thus one really misses him when he sits out Watch Your Step. With that being said, Romme does play surprisingly well on Chick Corea’s Tones for Joan’s Bones and in their very fast-paced rendition of Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step he gives us a little taste of Oscar Peterson in a splendid single-note solo. Thad Jones’ Quietude makes for a nice finish, again with von Bülow’s excellent guitar in the spotlight.

Kind of an odd review, I know; I liked one of the sidemen better than the leader. But if you’re a lover of really good jazz guitar, as I am, you need to hear this disc for von Bülow’s playing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Ãtma Quartet Plays 20th-Century Polish Works

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SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartet No. 2. PANUFNIK: String Quartet No. 3, “Paper Cuts.” PENDERECKI: String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary” / Ãtma Quartet / CD Accord ACD 252-2

The very talented Ãtma Quartet presents here three works by modern-minded Polish composers, starting with Karol Szymanowski and ending with Krzysztof Penderecki, who is still with us. Although I am very fond of the Quatuor Joachim’s recordings of both Szymanowski quartets on the Calliope label, this one has wonderful atmosphere as well as acute attention to detail. It’s the kind of performance that sweeps you up in its path and does not prod you into looking for comparative versions because you sense that something is amiss with it. There is elegance and drama galore in their interpretation, which also has considerable sweep.

Next up is the String Quartet No. 3 of Andrzej Panufnik, a composer strongly influenced by both Szymanowski and Grazyna Bacewicz. I confess to not knowing ant of his music prior to hearing this work, which begins with a fairly steady drone on a D with little gestures coming in and out. When the music finally settles in, we hear a bitonal melody very much in the Bacewicz style, elegantly crafted and again with gestures from the cello to complement the violins and viola. At 1:06 it becomes more agitated, but only briefly before settling back down. The development, in double time, includes much pizzicato as well as a “snapping” of strings. The music has good form but, to my ears, doesn’t say much until the very fast “Prestissimo possible” movement with its edgy rhythm and driving cello figures. The “Adagio sostenuto” is also pretty interesting.

The finale is the third String Quartet of Penderecki, a composer who usually annoys me, but this work was written during his “second period” when he began to turn away from the purposely ugly music of such works as The Devils of Loudon. Began to, but didn’t quite; just around the two-minute mark we hear edgy and quite abrasive music. In the second half we reach an ugly sort of moto perpetuo that is exciting in its drive but not appealing at all. It is, however, better constructed than his earlier works, and develops in an interesting manner. It’s the kind of work that I found somewhat interesting but would not willingly sit through a second time.

So there you have it. A mixed bag insofar as the music goes but all of it extremely well played and emotionally engaged.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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De Saram Plays Works for Solo Cello

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BAX: Rhapsodic Ballad. LIGETI: Sonata for Solo Cello. DALLAPICCOLA: Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio. CASSADÓ: Suite for Solo Cello / Rohan de Saram, cel / First Hand Recordings FHR49

Released in celebration of the cellist’s 80th birthday, these 2015 recordings of solo cello pieces by four varied composers is an interesting one. It opens with the very unusual Rhapsodic Ballad by Arnold Bax, unusual because he was much better known for his orchestral works than for chamber music. Yet the harmonies he uses vacillate between the conventional and the modern, which adds interest to the piece.

Next up is György Ligeti’s solo cello sonata, and de Saram plays it almost as well as Elena Gaponenko, the extremely talented Russian cellist-pianist. This is one of the composer’s earlier, more Bartók-and-Kodály-influenced pieces, but it still bears the mark of his unique musical mind, particularly the unusual, edgy second movement.

Another pleasant surprise is the quite modern-sounding Ciaconna, Intermezzo e Adagio by Luigi Dallapiccola, which is wonderfully modern in its harmonic trappings as well as tightly constructed, encompassing three pieces. Particularly interesting, to me, was the Intermezzo with its edgy pizzicato and edge-of-the-string bowing. In the “Adagio,” the cellist plays slightly out of tune (on purpose) to create a microtonal effect.

By contrast, the Cassadó Suite is almost conventional-sounding, more tonal if not melodically regular or enticing to lovers of Italian film or pop-classical music. De Saram plays it with vigor and an excellent tone, giving the music a firm muscular core and bringing out its Spanish influences. This is particularly evident in the second-movement “Danza” with its allusions to folk dance music. In the last movement, the dance element again enters the picture a little after the 2:30 mark, and this time almost sounds like flamenco.

This is an excellent album, one of the finest solo cello recordings I’ve ever heard. Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Morgenstern Trio plays Transformations

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TRANSFORMATIONS / BRIDGE: Phantasie Trio in C min. JALBERT: Piano Trio No. 2. BLOCH: 3 Nocturnes. BARAN: Dōnūşūmier (Transformations) / Morgenstern Trio / Azica ACD-71326

Named after German poet Christian Morgenstern, the trio of pianist Catherine Klipfel, violinist Stefan Hempel and cellist Emanuel Wehse met at Folkwang Conservatory. They’ve been playing together since 2008, but this is only their second CD.

The early (1907) Phantasie Trio by Frank Bridge, though in one continuous movement lasting a little over 17 minutes, is actually divided into five sections as follows:

  1. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco –
  2. Andante con molta espressione –
  3. Allegro scherzoso –
  4. Andante –
  5. Allegro moderato – Con anima

The Morgenstern Trio plays it with great passion but also with outstanding sweep and legato. Surprisingly for Bridge, the principal theme of the first section is tonal and almost Romantic in feeling, but it quickly morphs harmonically as the music becomes more agitated. At about 4:21 we move into the “Andante con molta espressione” section, played (again) in a Romantic style by the piano, with the violin and cello dropping little comments in before a broad cello theme changes things slightly. The “Allegro scherzoso” starts at 8:48, a brief but spirited movement with string pizzicato leading things off against the piano before returning to broad, bowed playing, then a switch to lightly bowed figures in which the chords become whole-tone and a bit edgier. We return to an “Andante” at 10:55 before moving into the final “Allegro moderato” theme, which is based on the opening but now expanded and developed further.

The following Piano Trio No. 2 is an entirely new work, composed for this group by Pierre Jalbert. In two contrasting movements—“Mysterious, nocturnal, desolate” and “Agitated, relentless”—the music begins with both strings playing very high up on the edge of their strings, very softly, while the piano plays little sprinkles of notes. Although a harmonically modern work, the Jalbert piece also features very broad themes which require a sustained style in many passages, although at 2:12 the tempo temporarily picks up and we get a surprisingly agitated section. Jalbert, who I had never heard of before, is clearly a composer who understands that a composition must develop and go somewhere, also that soft, mushy, romantic goop is not really “nocturnal,” just rubbish. The entire movement conveys a feeling not unlike driving down a poorly-lit highway with few road signs in the dead of night. You know you’re going somewhere, but you have doubts that you’re on the right track. Eventually, the music becomes entirely agitated before suddenly dropping down in tempo and volume for the final section. In the second movement, all is edginess, with the piano playing a moving bass line against staccato interjections by the strings. Jalbert sets up a sort of moto perpetuo for a while, but then interrupts it with edgy string tremolos and pizzicato as the tempo and volume suddenly drop for a slow passage reminiscent of the first movement, then picks up the restless energy once again. This is a simply wonderful piece: original, imaginative and very well-structured.

By contrast, the 3 Nocturnes of Ernest Bloch sound somewhat old-fashioned, yet the Morgenstern Trio plays them with such great feeling and temperament that they refuse to let the music sound sentimental. Indeed, they do a great job of emphasizing the somewhat French-style harmonics which include whole tones in its construction. Again, it’s the approach and not the actual score itself that dictates the mood, although the second of these nocturnes, marked “Andante quieto,” is clearly the most Romantic while the third, “Tempestoso,” is the edgiest.

Last up is the nine-part Dōnūşūmier or Transformations by Ilham Baran, a Turkish composer (now 84 years old) best known for electronic compositions. Since I can’t stand electronic music, I was happy to hear that this piece is indeed scored for a conventional piano trio without “enhancements.” After a somewhat tonal opening on the piano, the theme is played broadly by the violin while the cello assumes a rocking motion underneath. We then move into the first of eight variations, which combines Stravinskian rhythm with Middle Eastern harmonies. The second variation is slower and more elegant, almost relaxing except for its unusual harmonic movement. The third continues the vein of the second, but the theme is morphed further and includes pizzicato cello beneath increasingly louder block chords played by the piano. The volume slowly increases towards the end, which then leads us into the more rhythmic, medium-tempo fourth variation. In the brief fourth variation, the rhythm suddenly explodes in an “Allegro” that ends abruptly instead of carrying over to the very lyrical, almost Romantic fifth. By the eighth variation, we return to louder, edgier music, but what impressed me was the continuity that ran throughout the entire composition.

Clearly, this is an exceptional album, played with great heart and commitment by a trio that takes its mission very seriously. The sheer variety of material here, and the way it’s programmed, give one a feeling that they will continue to be very good for a long time to come.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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