Trio Musicalis Plays Contrasts

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BARTÓK: Contrasts. KHACHATURIAN: Trio. BERG: Kammerkonzert: II. Satz aus Dem – Adagio. MILHAUD: Suite for Trio. STRAVINSKY: L’Histoire du Soldat Suite / Trio Musicalis: Eduardo Raimundo, cl; Mario Pérez, vln; Francisco Escoda, pno / IBS Classical 42019

As in the case of a few other pieces, we have Benny Goodman to thank for the existence of Bartók’s Contrasts, and it is to his credit that he would even want to play such advanced music at a time (1938) when his top-rated swing band was still at its early peak, with Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin on trumpets, Jess Stacy on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. Goodman’s first real excursion into classical music was the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, which he recorded with the Budapest String Quartet. The very next was Contrasts, written by a man who detested jazz and thought very little of Goodman as a musician (he privately referred to him as a “jazznik”). When he finally saw the score, Goodman said, “Gee, Mr. Bartók, I’m going to need three hands to play this!,” yet he mastered it and even recorded it with Bartók himself on piano and Josef Szigeti on violin.

Trio Muscalis presents us with a nice, taut performance, perhaps a bit more Latin in feel and not quite as loose as Bartók’s own recording or the one with Ani Kavafian on violin, David Schifrin on clarinet and André-Michel Schub on piano, but it’s still a lively and somewhat idiomatic reading. In the slow second movement, violinist Mario Pérez gets the same eerie feeling that Szigeti did by playing on the edge of the strings, but with a sweeter tone. The third movement, played with great virtuosity, is just a tad off in its rhythm, again sounding more Latin than Hungarian.

The Khachaturian trio, dating from 1932, is a much more interesting and introspective piece than the splashy orchestral works by which he is better known. Trio Musicalis plays this with great sensitivity and feeling, obviously enjoying its Russian themes and rhythms. The overriding feeling of this trio, however, is pastoral, and this lyrical quality is brought out very well. The last movement has chord changes, and a rhythm, that sound more Middle Eastern than Russian.

The “Adagio” from Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto is arranged here for clarinet trio and played with great sensitivity though I thought the reduction of forces robbed the music of its color and richness. After this long, protracted slow movement, Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Trio from 1936 is a brisk, light but still very interesting piece. The first movement is particularly fascinating as it combines asymmetric rhythms that almost sound Latin with others that clearly resemble what we’ve come to accept as an “American” style—but then again, Milhaud was one of the few French composers of his time who was personally acquainted with American music, having come to the United States as early as 1922.

We end our excursion with the suite from Stravinsky’s Le Histoire du Soldat, played without a narrator. Once again this is a reduction of the score, but not as extreme as in the case of the Berg piece, and again Trio Musicalis plays it well—but, to my ears, a bit too lyrically and without the edge that Stravinsky wanted in the music.

In toto, then, a mixed review. Some of the performances and music are very good while others just miss the mark.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Edith Ruiz Plays Contemporary Piano Music

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ORTIZ: Su Muy Key. Estudios entre preludios. Patios serenos CHAPELA: Duelo en vela. HALKA: Miniatures. CORTEZ-ALVAREZ: Danza del parque de las acacias. ZÚÑIGA: Velocidad de reacción / Edith Ruiz, pno / Urtext JBCC295

Mexican pianist Edith Ruiz plays here music by five contemporary composers, five of them Latino: Gabriela Ortiz, Enrico Chapela, Charles Halka, Francisco Cortez-Alvarez and Esteban Zúñiga. The Latin bent is particularly evident in the opening atonal piece, Su Muy Key, with its strong Spanish-based rhythms, and although the music is indeed challenging harmonically it moves along with a wonderful bounce. Ruiz, thank heavens, is a strong pianist who does not shy away from attacking the keyboard with fervor. Her playing reminds me of my own except that I could never quite master as clean of a technique. The same composer’s Estudios entre preludios is equally atonal and has hints of Latin rhythm, but is a slower, somewhat dreamier piece, albeit with occasional mezzo-forte passages. In both pieces, Ortiz seems to rely quite a bit on running figures, both stepwise and arpeggiated, to make her effects. The second of the Estudios is an homage to György Ligeti; later on there is an homage to Béla Bartók, although the strong ostinato rhythm of this piece sounds more like George Antheil than Bartók. The homage to Jesusa Palancares, a name unknown to me, is full of loud, driving rhythms that press forward like a piledriver. In the preludio 4, the pianist seems to be playing a prepared piano: the sound is more hollow, and there are some microtones involved. There is also an homage to musical satirist John Cage.

Chapela’s Duelo en vela is a bitonal piece in a medium tempo. It, too, alludes to a Latin rhythm, but almost by allusion rather than outright statement; there are several interruptions in the beat, and the music lopes along like a dancer with a broken leg. It is, however, a fascinating piece in its own right, with a quixotic melodic line that somehow pulls together and makes sense. By contrast, Halka’s Miniatures are relatively still, quiet pieces, in the tradition of Erik Satie except with disturbing and somewhat menacing bass notes tossed in for color, although No. 3 has a strong but asymmetric rhythm while No. 4 (“Freely”) sounds a bit like classical mood music except for its bitonal bent. Cortez-Alvarez’ Danza del parque also uses asymmetric rhythms in a bitonal setting.

The recital closes with Zúñiga’s Velocidad de reacción, which begins with two mysterious, lonely notes, followed by running figures in the right hand against rootless chords in the left. Once again we hear a Latin-type rhythm, but now it is stuttering and uneven with moments of quiet repose tossed in for contrast. This piece is constructed of relatively simple blocks of sound, including repeated open fifth chords in D (sometimes with accidentals thrown into the middle of them) which somewhat halt the flow of this Velocidad, yet which holds the listener’s interest. In the middle section, around 7:50, Ruiz again seems to be playing a different, prepared piano for some time.

This is, in toto, a very interesting recital, although the music of Ortiz and Chapela is by far the most interesting, complex and distinguished.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Vinikour Plays 20th-Century Harpsichord Concerti

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WP 2019 - 2LEIGH: Concertino for Harpsichord & Strings. ROREM: Concertino di Camera. KALABIS: Harpsichord Concerto. NYMAN: Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord & Strings / Jory Vinikour, hpd; Chicago Philharmonic Orch.; Scott Speck, cond / Çedille CDR 188

To get straight to the point, there simply aren’t many classical harpsichordists who will even consider playing modern music, and there haven’t been since the unjustly-forgotten Sylvia Marlowe left us many years ago. Most of them are so hung up on their Bach-Handel-Scarlatti-Couperin-Lully world that they never venture much past the 18th century.

Thankfully, Jory Vinikour, who made his Çedille recording debut playing good ol’ J.S. Bach, isn’t one of them, and here he presents four harpsichord concerti written between the 1930s (Walter Leigh) and a few years ago. The Leigh concertino isn’t terribly daring, but it does follow in the footsteps of Stravinsky and is a well-conceived piece with some interesting moments.

Even more interesting is the surprisingly jazz-influenced Concertino di Camera by Ned Rorem, an excellent composer of songs whose music seldom intersects with a jazz feeling—yet here it is, particularly in the first movement which also sports a surprising slow section in the middle. Towards the end, he introduces some interesting backbeats. In the second movement, Rorem is more lyrical and reflective, but still using unusual chord positions that seldom have the key note sounded in them which gives the music a feeling of rootlessness. There are some little solos for the trumpet and oboe in it as well as a more extended one for violin, almost like a sinfonia concertante. In the third movement, Rorem surprises us once again, presenting not a jazz beat but an Italian tarantella rhythm mixed with somewhat modern chords—and again a trumpet solo with little fills for flutes and clarinets playing separately and together. In all three movements, the solo harpsichord acts more like a commentator on the orchestral goings-on. His solo lines are separate from the action while still contributing to the whole. At the 2:50 mark, however, there are some backbeats but not necessarily jazz-influenced ones.

By contrast, the concerto by Viktor Kalabis is resolutely atonal but not 12-tone. Kalabis uses short melodic motifs which he knits together to form the whole, using the harpsichord as both a melodic instrument and a rhythmic one, playing repeated riffs in double tempo during the first movement. The little staccato laughing or mocking figures which tie in with the busy harpsichord line almost sound as if played by winds though this is a string-only orchestra. At 5:18, the orchestra stops playing to allow the harpsichord a solo. One may choose to call it a cadenza, but although it has a cadenza-like feel to it the music is more adventurous and free-form that all of that which precedes it.

In the second movement, Kalabis pulls back a bit on his atonalism to produce an unusual but somewhat lovely melody played by various strings which comes to a pause before the solo harpsichordist enters, playing a sequence of unusual, slow clashing chords. Eventually the music gains its form and the movement proceeds with the harpsichord and the orchestra exchanging commentary. The third movement is an “Allegro vivo” with plenty of vivo, the tempo flying along at a manic pace and the harmony back to atonalism. The tempo slackens early on, at 2:38, to allow the soloist to play a brief atonal cadenza interrupted a few times by an almost pastoral-sounding theme played by the strings. Eventually the fast tempo returns, and the music becomes a bit more playful in character, with the soloist playing quadruple-time figures in rapid fashion against the winds and bass. Yet this “Allegro vivo” ends quietly, with a solo violin playing very high sustained notes.

Michael Nyman’s concerto is also atonal, and its first movement almost relentless in its driving forward propulsion. The double-time chord figures played by the soloist also ramp up the tension. The music becomes quite congested, with rapid figures played against each other in opposing and jagged rhythms. It becomes quite complex indeed, and holds one’s attention to hear how it’s all going to sort itself out. It’s a shame that I didn’t have any liner notes with this download so that I could read about this extraordinary work. The rather brief sections, six of them, flow into one another in an uninterrupted flow of rhythm and motion. The sudden key change at the beginning of the fourth section, marked simply quarter note =c. 100, is accompanied by frantic string tremolos so loud that they almost bury the soloist, amplified though he may be. A somewhat minimalist ostinato plated by the soloist with repeated Es in the middle of the keyboard surrounded by choppy chords and a running line in the treble also build up the tension, which is finally released via a series of odd figures in 16ths. The orchestra then joins in the fray, building up tension and even adding some syncopated backbeats.

The highest compliment I can pay this CD is that you’re not likely to hear any of it played on your local sleep-inducing classical music station. This disc is a real butt-kicker!!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Mark Turner Meets Gary Foster

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MARSH: Background Music. KYNER: ‘Teef. TRISTANO: Lennie’s Pennies. 317 East 32nd Street. ARLEN-MERCER: Come Rain or Come Shine. HAGGARD-BURKE: What’s New? KONITZ: Subconscious-Lee / Gary Foster, a-sax; Mark Turner, t-sax; Putter Smith, bs; Joe La Barbera, dm / Capri 74156-2 (live: Claremont, CA, February 8, 2003)

The liner notes for this double-CD set claim that “This music and vibe come from the world of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh with Lennie Tristano nodding in approval.” That is indeed true of the cool timbres of our two sax players, but clearly not in the beat. The rhythm section in the first three tracks plays very much in the swing school, albeit in a swing mode if one had Kenny Clarke or Roy Haynes on drums. Joe La Barbera, a superb veteran percussionist, keeps the beat a bit looser than it might have been by constantly fracturing the rhythm with little off-the-beat snare drum accents. I also reject the notion that Tristano is much of an influence here because there’s no piano on this date and the group doesn’t come close at any time to approximating the complex chord positions that Tristano would feed his musicians from the keyboard except for Lennie’s Pennies which has to use them because they’re part of the composition.

But the improvised sax solos are clearly well-structured and interesting. You’d never know just from listening that Gary Foster was almost 67 years old at the time of recording, although the little Bird licks he throws into his solos give his proclivities away. Foster has spent a lot of his career playing pop and film music in addition to jazz and classical to keep his rent payments up, the modern-day equivalent of paying your dues, but he clearly has never lost touch with his jazz side.

Mark Turner, on the other hand, was only 38 years old on this session, but he evidently enjoys the same models as Foster. One little problem with this live set is that Turner plays such a light-toned tenor that it’s sometimes difficult to tell his sound apart from Foster’s. For me, personally, the one offputting quality of these performances is Putter Smith’s awful-sounding electric bass. It has no color and no dynamics inflections; the playing is completely flat and two-dimensional. He keeps good time but sounds like something piped in from a short circuit in the wiring system.

The music also has a nice cozy or “coochy” feel to it. Foster and Turner really listen to each other and either juxtapose or build on what the other has just played, with the result that, although there are no real arrangements here to give a framework to their solos, they don’t need that kind of a safety net to fall back on. They are both master musicians. Neither one plays the convoluted, screeching and sometimes incomprehensible outside licks that many modern players seem to think are so avant-garde. They don’t have to. They’re not just playing their horns, they’re playing music.

In addition to Konitz and Marsh, I also hear some influence in their playing from Paul Desmond and early Sonny Rollins. Nothing wrong with that; they, too, were iconic improvisers on their instruments, and a little taste of their styles adds flavor. Turner is at his very best on the afore-mentioned Lennie’s Pennies, taking the advanced changes in stride as if he could improvise on them in his sleep. La Barbera also has a subtle but excellent drum solo in this one.

But clearly, the outstanding track in this set is Come Rain or Come Shine, where Turner’s opening a cappella solo completely rewrites the famous Harold Arlen tune and sets the stage for what comes next. The liner notes compare it to something by Aaron Copland, and for once I agree—but surely not an “Aaron Copland improvisation,” since Copland never improvised any of his music. Nevertheless, this track is a precious jewel, some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard from a jazz musician in my life. Putter’s bass solo again lacks a good tone, but his ideas are excellent, which feed into Foster’s ensuing alto solo in which he uses some whole-tone scales. All in all, this is some fabulous jazz by any standard. Even Turner’s final chorus, in which he fragments the original tune and displaces the rhythmic accents, is simply brilliant.

Tristano’s 317 East 52nd Street is the most complex tune played in this set, a real bop twister with an unusual line and harmonies, and the group (particularly the two saxists) handles it well, particularly Foster, who plays a nice atonal 8-bar phrase after Putter’s bass solo. La Barbera also has a nice off-rhythm drum solo here. Bob Haggart’s classic ballad What’s New? is quite lovely and contains a nice improvisation by Foster to lead it off.

Next up is Lee Konitz’ Subconscious-Lee, and by this time the band seems to be in a deeper state of musical meditation that in the first three tracks of CD 1. Perhaps Turner’s virtuoso turn on Come Rain or Come Shine was the catalyst, but whatever it was that moved them deeper within themselves, it is by this time a richer and more meditative state without resorting to that innocuous “soft jazz” that permeates too many albums nowadays. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it also sounds on this track as if Putter is playing acoustic bass, which is all to the better tonally, and his solo, too, is deep and rich. Finally, at the 6:10 mark, La Barbera kicks the tempo up and they play the tune proper (but here, Putter’s bass again sounds electric and hollow). The last chorus, though quite fine, is more like a recapitulation of the theme than an expansion of it.

Perhaps the biggest mystery, to me at least, is why this session had to wait 16 years to be released on record. Nothing in the liner notes or publicity blurb that came with this album gives an explanation for this. One would think that playing of this high a level from two well-established jazz names would have prompted someone to take a chance on releasing this sooner. This is generally a fine set, though it really becomes a great one from Cone Rain or Come Shine onward.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Wacky Music from Harry Partch

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WP 2019 - 2PARTCH: Ulysses at the End of the World / Dan Rosenboom, tp; Ulrich Kreiger, bar-sax; T.J. Troy, bs marimba;Nick Terry, boo-bams / 12 Intrusions / Troy, bs-marimba; Matt Cook, cloud chamber bowls; Erin Barnes, diamond marimba; John Schneider, 10-string adapted Hawaiian gtr/adapted vla / Windsong / Barnes, diamond marimba; Schneider, kithara; Nick Terry, boo-bams; Troy, bs-marimba / Sonata Dementia / Vicki Ray, chromolodeon; Troy, adapted gtr II; Schneider, kithara / Barstow: 8 Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing / Harry Partch, adapted gtr I/voice / TRAD. ISLETA INDIAN CHANT: Canción de Los Muchachos / 1904 Edison cylinder / Bridge 9525

This is Vol. 3 in Bridge’s series devoted to the microtonal music of Harry Partch. I reviewed Vol. 2, Plectra and Percussion Dances (Bridge 9432) for another venue when it was released in 2014. Like its predecessor, it is performed by the group of musicians collectively known as PARTCH. Most of their individual names are listed above. The two exceptions to this are the bonus tracks, a rare 1904 Edison cylinder of an Isleta Indian chant, one of several that the composer was asked to transcribe by the Southwest Museum in 1933. Partch later paraphrased this Cancion in the final Intrusion, titled “Cloud Chamber Music.”

As one can see from the above list of instruments, Partch was forever coming up with minute cracks in the tonal system, trying to break down the “bonehard system” of tonality that many a modern composer, including Leif Segerstam, has complained of, yet few of these composers seem to know of, or know of but don’t use, the 43-tone-to-an-octave pianos, prepared guitars and adapted violas and marimbas that he invented.

I had always been curious about “boo-bams,” the electronic drums used by jazz composer George Russell on his first album for RCA Victor in 1956 (the “Smalltet” session). It turns out that they were invented in 1951 by percussionist, drum maker and recording engineer Bill Loughborough, and he didn’t have to work too hard to sell Partch on the idea. The real eye-opener here is that Ulysses at the End of the World, subtitled A Minor Adventure in Rhythm, was originally written for iconic West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who liked the piece and wanted to play it but was too heavily booked to get around to it. By Partch’s standards, the piece is relatively conventional, staying fairly close to a normal harmonic base, and of course using jazz rhythm which he seldom did before or since. But Partch liked the piece and eventually added a baritone saxophone part in 1956, emulating the famed partnership that Baker had with Gerry Mulligan. That is the version heard here, and it’s a fascinating work, tightly constructed.

In the 12 Intrusions, Partch started out, again, fairly conservatively. The first study is based on the old Greek pentatonic scale, the second on Archytas’ Enharmonic, but from then on we get progressively stranger in sound and pitch. The third piece, “The Rose,” begins in what sounds like a tonal base, but quickly morphs chromatically into odder and odder territory. This is also the first of the Intrusions to have a half-sung, half-narrated vocal (other than spoken introductions), but the sliding chromatics of “The Crane,” which sounds like a take-off on the Blue Danube Waltz, is clearly in freaky territory. By the time we reach No. 6, “The Wind,” we are clearly in a microtonal universe, touching tonality occasionally but not regularly. (To paraphrase an old joke from A Thousand Clowns, “I’ll only go to the world of reality as a tourist.”) Hey, let’s not kid ourselves here. Harry Partch was taking some kind of mind-altering drug. I just want to know what it was and if I can get it cheap!

Windsong started out as incidental music for an experimental film by Madeline Tourtelot called U.S. Highball. When she showed Partch the rushes from the film—she and a friend playfully running around sand dunes near Lake Michigan—he thought of the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo and agreed to work on that first. Partch’s music was meticulously timed to match the film edits and cues, and he performed it himself. This is its first recording of the original version for diamond marimba, bass marimba, kithara and boo-bams. It’s mostly percussive music with elements of microtonality here and there. But it’s also very playful music in addition to being strange; if you just sit back, relax and enjoy it, it’ll come to you.

I won’t even try to describe the Sonata Dementia except to say that it’s a microtonal laugh and a half. Partch clearly wanted this to be humorous to the listener, thus the strange rhyming introductions to each section of the piece. Too often, people tend to take avant-garde music too seriously, but Partch had spent too many years living as a vagabond, and with vagabonds, to be pretentious.

The Isleta Indian chant is fascinating and, for a 1904 cylinder, surprisingly well reproduced. The 8 Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing is a 1968 performance (with spoken introduction) by Harry Partch himself. It’s essentially an atonal guitar piece as performed here with a combination speech-song presentations of the real-life hitchhikers’ graffiti from Barstow, California. Several of them are quite funny, some are touching, a few bizarre.

Harry Partch was a musical experimenter who, oddly enough, had a solid grounding in early music. In his youth he had several in-depth conversations with members of the legendary Dolmetsch family, who were working on reviving pre-Renaissance music, and they were amazed at how much he knew of their field. But he was also quintessentially American, and his music, however odd it sounds, had a solid grounding in American roots music: folks songs by whites, blacks and American Indians, work chants, popular tunes and jazz. He was truly one of a kind, and the group PARTCH does a wonderful job of capturing both the letter and the spirit of his music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Gluck’s “Hidden Opera”…by Salieri

Les Danaides

SALIERI: Les Danaïdes / Margaret Marshall, sop (Hypermnestre); Dimitri Kavrakos, bass (Danaüs); Raul Giménez, ten (Lyncée); Clarry Bartha, sop (Plancippe); Andrea Martin, bar (Pélagus/1st Officer); Enrico Cossutta, ten (2nd & 3rd Officer); Südfunk-Chor; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Gianluigi Gelmetti, cond / EMI Classics 123202

While reading Vol. 1 of David Cairns’ great biography of Berlioz, I kept running across this opera, which so impressed the young composer-to-be that he went to see performances of it every chance he could and was deeply moved. This surprised me, as I had never heard any Salieri opera that I really found impressive in any way, particularly the serious works—until I learned, on Wikipedia, that Christoph Willibald von Gluck, one of Berlioz’ musical gods, was partly responsible for the music.

The story goes like this. In 1779, Gluck’s opera Écho et Narcisse bombed big in Paris, leaving the famous composer red-faced and ashamed, particularly after the success of his rival Piccinni’s opera Iphégenie en Tauride, a subject that Gluck himself had done, in 1781. Gluck fled back to Vienna, intending at first to retire from music altogether, but in 1783 he was presented with a libretto for Les Danaïdes. The subject, about two rival kings (and twin brothers) who each have 50 children—Ægyptus 50 sons, Danaus 50 daughters—who ostensibly make peace by having these offspring wed to each other, but Danaus secretly orders his daughters to kill all the sons on their wedding night of whom only one, Hypermnestra, defies him—immediately appealed to him.

But this is where we get divergent stories about how the opera was handed over to Antonio Salieri to write. According to Benoit Dratwicki, writing the liner notes for the Bru Zane recording of this work, claims that:

Gluck accepted the libretto translated by Du Roullet and Tschudi, but immediately entrusted the composition to his student (also living in Vienna), Antonio Salieri. No doubt aided by Gluck’s advice on what did or did not appeal to French audiences, the latter completed the work quickly, but did not present it to the directors of the Académie Royale de Musique under his own name. Gluck was far too familiar with the music world in Paris and its factions, its pitfalls, to leave Salieri to face alone a public that was so hard to please. To facilitate the reception of Les Danaïdes, he declared that he himself was the principal author of the music, written with the collaboration of his student. That at least was how the opera was announced in the press prior to the première.

Only after the work’s success had been confirmed did Gluck admit to the deception, and by then it was too late for the public to call into question Salieri’s talent. Thus he became the new darling of Parisian opera circles and of the French court – having, of course, dedicated Les Danaïdes to Marie-Antoinette. Only after the sixth performance was it announced (in the Journal de Paris) that Salieri was the sole author of the music. This play of disinformation enabled the work to make an immediate and permanent place for itself in the repertoire of the Académie Royale de Musique, where it was revived until 1828.

Tony Salieri, in a painting by Mahler

Tony Salieri, in a painting by Mahler

Now, this account seems pretty straightforward, but it is open to several questions. Other than promoting Salieri’s career, why would Gluck allow his pupil to write the whole score when it was he himself who wanted to benefit from a “hit” opera to climax his return to Paris? And, considering how much of the score really does sound like Gluck, just how much did the older master really write? Dratwicki points to two other Gluck-like operas by Salieri, Les Horaces (Oath of the Horatii, 1786) and Tarare (1787), but I’ve heard the former (which I will review soon) and the music here is not so much Gluck-like as more looking forward to such works as Cherubini’s Medea. So either Gluck was lying when he said that Salieri wrote every note of Danaïdes or Salieri was simply able to channel his teacher much better in this work than in the other two.

Yet there is a very different account of what happened on the Wikipedia page devoted to this opera:

Calzabigi originally wrote the libretto of Les Danaïdes for Christoph Willibald Gluck, but the aged composer, who had just experienced a stroke, was unable to meet the Opéra’s schedule and so asked Salieri to take it over.

Emperor Joseph II assured that Salieri wrote the music “almost under the dictée of Gluck,” in a letter (dated 31 March 1783) to Count Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador in Paris. Then Mercy told the directors of the Opéra that Gluck had composed the first two acts, and Salieri supplied the third act’s music (Mercy did not realize the opera was in five acts). Even when the libretto was published, Gluck and Salieri shared billing as the composers.

Though flattered, Gluck was not foolish enough to risk too close an association with young Salieri’s work and diplomatically informed the press: “The music of Danaïdes is completely by Salieri, my only part in it having been to make suggestions which he willingly accepted.” Gluck, who had been devastated by the failure of his last Paris opera, Écho et Narcisse, was concerned that Les Danaïdes would suffer a similar fate. He wrote to Roullet the same day that the opera premiered, crediting Salieri with the entire work, and the press noted this confession.

Note that the Emperor Joseph stated that Salieri wrote the music “ALMOST under the dictée of Gluck,” indicating that it was known to him before the premiere that Salieri wrote a good amount of the score and not that Gluck wrote it all, as stated in the other account. Note also that this account states that Gluck informed the press that the music was not his not because he wanted to promote Salieri but because he didn’t want to risk that close of an association with a young composer—also, that long after Gluck supposedly “spilled the beans,” the libretto was published showing Salieri and Gluck as co-composers.

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Original cover of Les Danaides, showing Salieri and Gluck as co-composers.

Also please note that Les Horaces was a complete and utter failure, with the first-night audience actually laughing at this dramatic opera. Granted, it was probably the weak and ineffectual libretto that convulsed them, not the music, which does have a few surprisingly Gluck-like numbers in it, but apparently Gluck had no further interest in connecting himself with Salieri after the success of Les Danaïdes. I still say that the first version of the story has a bad smell to it. I have never heard of any great and famous composer pulling such shenanigans as are described here, even to promote a protégé. Have you? And please remember, Gluck was someone who did not usually play games with opera management or have much of a sense of humor. If he wanted to slip Salieri over on the Parisians, why not just say that he wrote the opera entirely himself and not as a collaboration? And why not have both their names listed as co-composers, with his own quite naturally coming first?

There are several places in Les Danaïdes where the music is clearly that of Salieri and only Salieri, particularly the several dance-like numbers (of which there are quite a few, which is probably what endeared the opera to the ballet-loving Parisians) which are obviously Italian in style and not German. In these pieces, Salieri’s music resembles that of Spontini who also followed in the footsteps of Gluck. Yet several of the sung recitatives and ensembles, and particularly the arias, sound like nothing else Salieri ever wrote. They sound like Gluck and are most probably written by him, lack of hard evidence notwithstanding.

To a certain extent, Salieri’s opera is not quite as Gluckian as that of Le Sueur’s Paul et Virginie—or, to be more specific, not as much like the late-period Gluck of Armide as Le Sueur, who was much more harmonically daring. It is more like a hybrid between Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigénie en Tauride, more melodic than the second but much more dramatic than the first. In some of the linking orchestral and choral passages, too, the music looks forward to Spontini…as I said, very Italian though still in the Gluckian style.

Yet it is still a splendid work by any measure. Unlike many other Italian operas of this period the music is continuous, it does not stop dead for an aria to make a cheap effect via high notes or coloratura runs, and for the most part the music fits the drama perfectly. I just wish that Salieri had cut two or three of his instrumental dances; they are the one thing that very occasionally bogs down the dramatic continuity, but as I said, this is what the Parisians loved. Gluck slowly but surely eliminated this kind of nonsense from his operas, and this is what put him out of favor in Paris. The good thing is that Salieri found a way to blend some of the dance music right into a following scene or aria in the same tempo and key, which helps with the musical if not with the dramatic continuity, and at least his dance music is not as cheap-sounding and “rat-a-tat-tat” as that of Rossini and Verdi. And Salieri also has specific moods for each act, i.e. the first, in which it seems as if joy and happiness are about to reign the music is happy and playful whereas, in the second when Danaus’ dark plot is revealed, the music is slower, softer and moodier.

If I were to make one criticism of the opera as a whole, it is that Salieri dragged out the plot over five acts lasting nearly two hours whereas Gluck would probably have written no more than three and reduced it to roughly 100 minutes. One may say look at how Gluck elongated the discussion between Pylade and Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride, but the music for these scenes is in a very dramatic and almost realistic melodic recitative, not an operatic duet in the strict sense of the term, and when it is seen on stage one is riveted by the conflicting emotions that both brothers have in trying to save one another. Salieri does achieve something of the sort in the dramatic duet between Hypermnestra and Danaus in Act II…or, perhaps, this was one of several passages in the work by Gluck himself. It has his fingerprints on every note and phrase and sounds absolutely nothing like Salieri-cum-Gluck. Nor does the Hypermnestra-Danaus duet in Act III.

As for the recording, this was the second made by conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti, for whom Les Danaïdes seemed to have been a pet project. The first, made in 1983 for Dynamic, was a showcase for the famous soprano Montserrat Caballé. Please note that I call her as a famous soprano and not a great one. Caballé had a fabulous voice but was seldom a great artist. Almost nothing she sang projected an actual character. She did not sing from the heart but to show off the beauty of her voice, and as a result this earlier recording dragged in places which disrupted the structure of the music. In this 1990 recording, Gelmetti has the services of the excellent British soprano Margaret Marshall, little remembered today, as well as then then-quite-famous tenor Raul Giménez, a fine singer who spent way too much wasted time warbling Rossinian garbage, but the dramatic stars here are the pungent, dark-voiced Greek bass Dimitri Kavrakos, who sounds quite a bit like Boris Christoff except with a quick vibrato in the voice and soprano Clarry Bartha as Plancippe, who projects her character with great interior feeling. Modern-day HIP conductor Christophe Rousset has more recently made a recording of this opera for Bru Zane, but the ultra-thinness and whiny straight tone of his orchestra rob the music of much-needed gravitas.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Alberga’s Fascinating String Quartets

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WP 2019 - 2ALBERGA: String Quartets Nos. 1,* 2, 3 / Ensemble Arcadiana: Thomas Bowes, *Jacqueline Shave, Oscar Perks, vln; Andres Kaljuste, vla; Jonathan Swensen, cel / Navona NV6234

This album presents the string quartets of Eleanor Alberga, whose music—though thoroughly classical in structure and concept—clearly exhibits the strong influence of jazz it its rhythms. She has written music for the BBC Proms and the Royal Opera, and of course I’ve not heard any of this, but what I hear in this album is simply extraordinary.

In the liner notes, Alberga attributes her inspiration in the first quartet, and to a lesser extent the second, to a lecture on physics she attended in which she learned that our bodies are pretty much made up of “stardust” (or, as the late astrologist Carl Sagan put it back in the late 1970s, “star stuff”). The continually strong rhythms, including backbeats, may have much to do with her origins in Jamaica, where she was born in 1949, but as we all know, the native music of the Caribbean is close to jazz and was an early influence on it. The rhythmic element is less evident in the slow movement, titled “Espressivo with Wonder and Yearning,” but the music is no less imaginative. Alberga has a real gift for creating melodic lines, and structures, that continually develop and are attractive without resorting to pop music-like tunes. She quite evidently enjoys what she does, and puts a great deal of herself into everything she writes. This is quite different from the majority of modern composers, who are more academic “thinkers” that “feelers.” The third movement, “Frantically Driven Yet Playful,” is indeed frantic, a sort of bitonal 6/8 jig danced on one leg, so to speak.

The second quartet, though admittedly cut from the same cloth, uses even more syncopated figures with the rhythms sometimes running backwards against themselves. In the first section (movement), we again hear a 6/8 rhythm, but now it is more of a neo-classic motor rhythm and not a jig. Alberga cleverly avoids monotony by alternating this strong beat with longer-held notes while developing her theme. She continues to alternate lyrical sections with dramatic ones, always moving the music towards unexpected yet always logical shifts of mood.

By her own admission, the third quartet is cut from a different cloth: it is “more reflective and inward-looking.” Although it is no less rhythmic in places and just as surprising in its twists and turns of phrase, it is more lyrical overall, more a reflection of the artist’s own inner being, such as the sudden, unexpected shift down to a pianissimo whisper at the end of the first movement. The second movement consists of several “slithering” figures for the strings, which become the basis of the development (begun by the cello), again alternating with sharp rhythmic accents, while the third (“Adagio”) begins with floating figures and small rhythmic gestures to fill the texture, yet again with a surprising quick-tempo outburst.

Another surprise comes in the form of the quirky rhythms used in the final “Allegro,” based to some extent on neo-Classical music but with an impetus all her own, such as the one that suddenly enters the picture at around the 2:40 mark. It is dance-like but in a quirky way, and the funny little gestures she inserts adds to its piquancy. So, too, does the abrupt ending.

These are simply wonderful pieces, brilliantly conceived and performed to perfection by Ensemble Arcadiana.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jeffrey Holmes Burns Bridges!

 

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MAY THE BRIDGES I BURN LIGHT MY WAY / HOLMES: Thrall / Mari Kawamura, pno; Rachel Beetz, fl; James Sullivan, bs-cl; Shalini Vijayan, vln; Ashley Walters, cel; Kyle Motl, bs; Donald Crockett, cond / Nastrond I / Vijayan, vln; Yuri Inoo, perc / Kirurgi (String Quartet No. 2) / Lyris String Qrt / Oscularum Infame / Vijayan, vln; Charles Tyler, cel; Richard Valitutto, pno / Hrith (Hrið-Móðr-Ljómi) / Michael Kudirka, gtr; Tara Schwab, fl; Allen Fogle, Fr-hn; Inoo, perc; Allison Bjorkedal, hp; Tereza Stanislav, vln; Maggie Parkins, cel; Crockett, cond / 5 Microtonal Studies. Danzleikr / Kudirka, Brian Head, gtr / Nocturnes / Kudirka, gtr / Mālen (May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way) / Kudirka, Head, gtr; Paul Sherman, ob; Nic Gerpe, cel/pno; Stanislav, vln; Nick Terry, perc; Crockett, cond / MicroFest MF 13

American Jeffrey Holmes, who studied with Donald Crockett, Georg Friedrich Haas and Stephen Hartke, is one of the few modern composers who follow in the microtonal footsteps of Harry Partch and Júlian Carillo. This double-CD release is a fascinating glimpse into his musical mind.

The opener, Thrall, is described by him as “a concertante work for piano and five players …composed in 2014. The title comes from the Old-Norse language meaning ‘slave.’ The equal tempered confines of the piano [is played against] the microtonal intonations of the melodic instruments.” The slightly weird-sounding world of Partch is immediately evident from the opening piano flourish, and continues as the music develops—and develop it does in its strange, dark manner. Although not really jazz-based. there is a certain boogie-woogie feel to the eight-to-the-bar rhythm of the keyboard that comes and goes. The strings play mostly slurred figures around the piano’s rhythmic music. The whole piece has an unsettling sound, not so much atonal as sounding as if every key within the 12 tones of an octave are being played against one another at various points. Descending chromatics are used for the melodic instruments, or rather descending slurs through the whole of the tonal spectrum.

Nastrond I, described as “the first in a series of tone-poems that each depict a region of the Scandinavian mythological underworld,” pits violin against percussion in yet another application of microtonality. Yet it is surprisingly lyrical in its middle section, starting around the three-minute mark, where the violin plays a simple but effective series of held tones while the percussion plays lightly behind it (triangle, woodblocks, etc.). At one point, there’s a slight resemblance to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme (surely the strangest TV show theme music ever written). At 7:57 the music again becomes very syncopated, with the violin taking the lead and the percussion echoing, but this, too, eases up and the music develops.

This is followed in turn by his second string quartet of 2009, titled Kirurgi. Its six movements “are separated by textural differences, but united through motivic unity and a consistent harmonic landscape.” This music is simply bitonal for the most part, not as microtonal as the preceding works, and is played with energy and great style by the Lyris String Quartet. Again, strong rhythms are featured, syncopated but not really jazz-like, alternating with long held notes by the quartet as a unit and by the solo instruments therein. The second movement, a long (seven-minute) fugue, is again somewhat bitonal and features another surprisingly lyric melodic structure, including a stand-out violin solo in the closing minute to which the second violin adds its own plaintive counter-song, followed by the viola and then the cello. This is one thing I really liked about Holmes: he doesn’t just have one style or one “voice.” His music is quite varied in approach. The succeeding movements of the quartet, in fact, each have their own character and feel, which contributes to the whole.

Oscularum Infame, written for piano trio in 2009, consists of four principal movements with three interludes as well as a prelude and postlude. Here, too, Holmes is “simply” atonal and not microtonal, yet the music moves in a slow, slithering fashion through the chromatic scale. Percussive crushed chords in the piano introduce the first movement after the prelude, a busy and complex movement with solos for each player. Some of this music has a bit of a George Antheil sound to it. Around the seven-minute mark, however, the music does become microtonal, and to interesting effect in context. Holmes created some real moods, and not just an intellectual exercise, in this astonishing work.

In CD 2 we encounter Holmes’ works for guitar, sometimes two guitars. Since this is an instrument that can easily be retuned to satisfy the whims of any composer, we are back in Microtonal Land. Hrith, the opening piece, was written for Holmes’ friend, guitarist Michael Kudirka, who plays on all of the works presented here. But most are not for guitar(s) alone, and Hrith is no exception. It begins, literally, with a bang from the percussion, following which we hear the French horn, strings, flute and harp before the guitar comes in against them in its own key or keys. One thing I especially liked about this music is that it uses the guitar in a strong way, often playing percussive chords à la Django Reinhardt or using “scrubs” like a Flamenco player. Very little of it is in the wimpy, Segovia-based style which has all but ruined classical guitar music over the last century. Kudirka does have a long solo in which some of the single notes are lightly plucked, but he is frequently asked to play with great strength and energy against the massed sextet behind him. The music has moments of quasi-modality in it but keeps melting in its microtonal morass. Holmes keeps our interest with his strong sense of musical structure. (Warning to programmers on classical music stations who just love to stick guitar pieces in: this is NOT music “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s too good to be musical wallpaper.) The French horn blares long-held notes; the guitar becomes more agitated; the percussion booms once again, and the strings and winds slither upward like rising banshees—and yet, it ends softly.

The 5 Microtonal Studies, written in 2002 for two guitars, has one of the instruments tuned “approximately one-sixth of a tone beneath the other” although each guitar is in tune within itself. This gives the impression of one instrument constantly being “off.” The listener can take this one of two ways: as a purposeful, serious piece or as sort of a musical joke on those musicians who always seem to be off in pitch but can’t figure out which one of them is wrong. Either way, it’s fascinating music. Holmes plays with the guitars bouncing rapid triplet passages off each other in No. 5, ironically marked “Tranquillo” when it is nothing of the sort.

In Nocturnes, Holmes claims to be using “a new and unique theoretical and harmonic system” while combining three nocturnes in one, all of them “compiled, collected and juxtaposed upon one another in a variety of ways.” Again, some of the music is quite rapid in tempo, here belying the title of “nocturne,” although in some places a nocturnal mood is indeed created and sustained. Happily, the music is more than just a theoretical exercise. It is logically constructed and fascinating, often using upper harmonics as single notes within the harmonic framework.

In Danzleikr, Holmes has tried to bring some aspects of Nordic legends (his ancestral background) into the music and to “at times blend it with my personal musical language, and at others clash with it.” The result is a fascinating piece that sometimes sounds like Nordic folk music, only played by two guitars out of tune with one another.

The final work, which is the title track of this album, is a double concerto for two guitars and four other instruments: violin, oboe, celesta/piano and percussion. Yet it starts with just the two guitarists playing off each other until 3:06, when the flute enters holding a long D, with the oboe occasionally playing a microtone under it. The violin and percussion (it sounds like Chinese cymbals or finger cymbals) then enter playing edgier figures, joined by the oboe as the guitars placidly go on their own way in front of them. Eventually the whole group falls into these two styles, the flowing string-and-wind combination with percussion accents against the two guitars picking repeated eighth-note patterns. At the 12:234 mark, the percussion becomes quite strong and the music more rhythmic. It’s a fascinating, almost hypnotic piece.

All in all, this is quite a feast for lovers of the edgiest in modern music, well conceived pieces and very well performed.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Siggi Quartet Plays South of the Circle

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SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE / BJARNASON: Stillshot. SVEINBJARNARDÓTTIR: Opacity. SIGURĐSSON: Nebraska. RAGNARSDÓTTIR: Fair Flowers. TÓMASSON: Seremonia / Siggi String Quartet / Sono Luminus DSL-92232

The Siggi String Quartet is a fairly new group, founded in 2012 during the Young Scandinavian Composers festival in Reykjavik. Although they have previously recorded music by the vastly-overrated Philip Glass (a member of my “junk composers” list), they have also actively sought out new music and thus present some of it on this new release.

It opens with Stillshot by Daniel Bjarnason, described in the liner notes as “dreamy and nostalgic.” I found it, actually, to be quite dramatic; if this is a Scandinavian’s idea of “dreamy,” they must have some weird nightmares! But it is excellent music, written as a chaconne (which, alas, is way too edgy to qualify for my “Cheerful Chaconne Contest”), though the listener will have to struggle to discern the chaconne form beneath its rather disturbing surface and very slow tempo. The Siggi Quartet, like many modern groups today, also plays with extremely bright sonorities and taut phrasing, which add to the disturbing feeling in this work, which becomes suddenly loud in places you don’t expect it to, with sharp shards of sound produced by the upper strings.

Next up is Opacity by violinist/composer Una Sveinbjarnardóttir. She describes it in the liner notes as “an experiment where I wrote long, movement-long solos for each instrument of the Quartet.” This music, too, combines a lyrical line with edgy qualities; this seems to be a trait of many modern Scandinavian composers. The second movement, written for the cello, is surprisingly quick in tempo and very rhythmic, just the opposite of what you would expect, using simple modal harmonies. Towards the end, the violins play very high, ghostly-sounding, edge-of-the-string figures. The viola gets the eerie, slow third movement while the second violin gets the fourth, in which its long, slow notes are played against brief edgy figures by the rest of the quartet.

Valgeir Sigurđsson’s Nebraska was commissioned by the Chiara String Quartet and premiered by them at the Merkin Concert Hall in Lincoln Center. The piece essentially stays in A major using modal scale steps and repeated rhythmic figures in the by-now-familiar minimalist style in the first movement, reverting to the kind of edgy slow music of the preceding pieces in the second. By and large, however, I found this music more gimmicky and predictable than its predecessors on the album.

Fair Flowers was written by Mamiko Dis Ragnarsdóttir, a classical pianist who also plays pop and jazz music. The notes tell us that the work is based “on a strict system of colors” based on a painting of flowers by Icelandic artist Eggert Pétursson, but the colors are not identified. Since I don’t hear music in colors, you’ve got me as to which ones they’re supposed to be, but the music itself is hypnotic in its use of slow, overlapping figures in a slow, elegiac form. At 3:30 the music slowly begins to develop, adding small, sharply-edged figures and increasing the underlying tempo by doubling the notes given to the cello. By 6:40, the piece has become much louder in volume and more complex in structure, putting together the building blocks of the opening figures in a sort of crazy-quilt pattern. Towards the end, she indulges in a bit of bitonality, to good effect.

Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia is completely different in style from the preceding music: highly rhythmic, almost sounding like those sprockets in a jack-in-the-box that make attractive but percussive sounds when the handle is cranked. It is music obviously based on a strict mathematical form, lacking in melody and to a certain extent in harmony, in which “five types of textures are exposed and repeated in a different order, always played very soft and without interpretation.” So there! A nice mind game, attractive in that respect but not the kind of music that will stick with you.

So there you have it. A pretty strange disc with some very interesting pieces on it, a modern string quartet program that takes chances and, for the most part, succeeds.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Segerstam Conducts Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Christum am Ölberge.* Elegischer Gesange / *Hanna-Leena Haapamäki, sop; *Jussi Myllys, ten; *Niklas Spångberg, bass; Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis; Turku Philharmonic Orch.; Leif Segerstam, cond / Naxos 8.573852

The 1803 religious oratorio Christus am Ölberge, or Christ on Mount Olive, was Beethoven’s first work in that genre, well before his Mass in C or the late, great Missa Solemnis. It has always been attacked for its weak libretto, though Beethoven himself defended that much, complaining to his publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel, that “one should still be delighted whenever one finds that music and words form a whole; and although the verbal expression in itself may be commonplace, one should not seek to improve any word or passage.”

But Beethoven, who was a Deist and not a Christian, was obviously viewing the work as a dramatic totality and not necessarily as something tied too closely to the Bible. And ironically, though he defended the text he was really not all that proud of the work as a whole. In another statement, Beethoven said that “If there is anything to take into consideration concerning my oratorio, it is this: it was my first and earliest work in that style, and it was written in a fortnight, during all kinds of disturbances and distressing events in my life.”

Perhaps the biggest real complaint we can make of the work today is that some of the music, particularly that for the soprano, sounds a bit light and frivolous, not as dramatic as some of the passages for Jesus, particularly the great early aria “Meine Seele ist erschütter!” Yet by and large, it is not a bad piece at all if taken on its own terms and particularly if it is conducted and sung well.

In this new recording, the work is led by the estimable composer-conductor Leif Segerstam. In performances of his own works, and those of other modern composers, Segerstam conducts briskly and always has, but in works of the Romantic and Classical periods, he tends to conduct slowly, and he does so here. Now, the score of Christus am Ölberge does not bear any metronome markings, as opposed to his sonatas and symphonies—apparently Beethoven thought so little of it that he didn’t bother to go back and add any—but it does have general tempo indications: Adagio, Allegro etc. Comparing this performance to that of Helmuth Rilling on Hänssler Classic, Segerstam is considerably slower throughout. The opening Adagio, for instance, is taken at a tempo of 76 beats per minute by Rilling, which is at the outer edge of that tempo range, while Segerstan takes it at 66 BPM, the lowest tempo rate in that range. For a composer like Beethoven, who generally preferred rapid, taut performances of his music, it would seem to make sense that Rilling’s performance is closer to the ideal.

But in this case, tempo does not tell the whole story, because Rilling conducts in a brisk, no-nonsense style with very little made of the dynamic changes or dramatic energy in certain passages—one might almost say that he flattens them out—whereas Segerstam, within his slower tempi, is alive to the mood and feeling of the piece. I got the same impression when I heard him conduct, way back in the 1970s, a somewhat slow but deeply felt performance of Puccini’s La Bohème (surely the last thing in the world one would expect an avant-garde Nordic composer to conduct) at the Metropolitan Opera. Slow his work may be, but not carelessly tossed off or dragged so much that the music loses its bite or energy.

In only one moment did I prefer the Rilling performance to Segerstam’s, and that was in the opening tenor recitative “Jehovan, du mein Vater.” Keith Lewis, in the earlier recording, sang this with a wonderfully “inward” quality whereas Jussi Myllys, on this new version, sings it in a more straightforward manner. But no matter. Segerstam’s conducting is consistently more dramatic, more Beethovenish, than Rilling’s at every turn.

There is also an unexpected bonus to hearing it conducted at a more leisurely pace, and that is that the Seraph’s coloratura folderol sounds less like a Mayr or Rossini aria than it usually does. It can also be said, rather truthfully, that the slower pace gives the music more gravitas which is very welcome in this score. Beethoven’s later masses, particularly the Missa Solemnis, works much better at a slow pace than at a fast one, and although this earlier piece is far lighter in character there seems to be a better flow conducted in this manner.

Not that this oratorio has much competition. Aside from the Rilling recording, the only other one I could find in the current catalogue was one conducted by Kent Nagano with Luba Orgonosova and Placido Domingo, the latter well past his expiration date, and I know there was one from way back in the 1970s featuring tenor Nicolai Gedda and the great soprano Cristina Deutekom, conducted rather blandly by one Volker Wangenheim on EMI. There’s also a mono radio broadcast available on Archipel featuring the great Fritz Wunderlich and the awful, fluttery soprano Erna Spoorenberg, conducted by a somewhat bland conductor named Henk Spruit.

Christus am Olberge coverAh, but there is one other recording out there, floating around in the ether that is the Internet, one that even I had not known about, and that is a venerable (read: old analog stereo) recording issued by both Vox in 1963 and Turnabout in 1970, currently available on both Musical Concepts MCS-ED-9084 and Vivace E-651. None of the performers are star names—soprano Lieselotte Rebmann (she was also the soprano on the now-forgotten Eugen Jochum recording of the Beethoven Ninth), tenor Reinhold Bartel, baritone August Messthaler and conductor Josef Bloser with the Stuttgart Philharmonic and the South German Choral Society—but I am here to tell you that, although the orchestral sound is a little muddy compared to the pristine clarity of Segerstam’s reading, it has all of his passion and more, and is taken in a taut, forward style that is not glib and is plenty dramatic. In fact, I would say that it is the most dramatic performance of this work I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard all the others mentioned above. They just sing and play their hearts out, and all of the singers are in good voice. The only down moment in the entire recording is that, in the midst of the Seraph’s first big scene, the sound suddenly switches from stereo to mono in the big choral passage in the middle of it (yes, it does go back to stereo before the scene is over).

So now you know that you have a choice. Both Bloser and Segerstam conduct with good feeling, but Bloser is a shade more dramatic and pulls the structure of the music together tighter. The soloists on both recordings are excellent, although I must admit that Rebmann is a little brittle in her very highest notes whereas Hanna-Leena Haapamäki is not. But as an overall performance of the oratorio, the little-known Bloser recording is simply a revelation.

I do like the Segerstam recording in its own way, no question about it, and if great sound is among your highest priorities, it clearly surpasses Bloser.

As for the Elegischer Gesange, it’s a wet blanket, clearly inferior Beethoven, but performed well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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