Discovering Jean-François Le Sueur

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In David Cairns’ two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, he devotes a great deal of space in the first volume to Berlioz’ first composition teacher, Jean-François Le Sueur (1760-1837), an exact contemporary of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) who became his second. And what he has to say about Le Sueur is quite remarkable, that despite his exalted position at the Académie des Beaux Arts he was not only willing to take on occasional private pupils like Berlioz who showed great promise (due to the bitter, ongoing feud with his father over his choice of career, Berlioz was not given money to study at the Conservatoire or the Académie) but also guided them in the basics of composition without interfering with their own evolving, individual style.

Of course, part of the reason for Le Sueur’s sympathy for his young charge was that both of them were rabid fans of Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787), the stubborn pioneer of dramatic opera who came to reject the florid nonsense of the Baroque era in favor of a plainer vocal line and, more importantly, an astonishing revamping of orchestral writing to reflect the ongoing drama with surging brass and string passages formerly unknown in the music world. Le Sueur delighted young Berlioz when he told him of the one time he actually saw Gluck walking the streets of Paris. He did not immediately recognize him, having never seen him in person before, but was struck by his strong presence and self-absorbed manner. Typically, as soon as someone else did recognize him, Gluck turned away and hastily left. The bystander who spotted him told Le Sueur who it was, and thus the incident stayed in his memory.

Le Sueur also understood the challenges that young Berlioz was facing in starting up a music career out of nothing. He himself had done the same thing, starting out as a chorister in the college church of Abbeville and then at the Cathedral of Amiens where he studied music. Because of this background, he fell into composing religious music: masses, oratorios, prayers etc. When he decided to turn his attentions to opera, he was rebuffed. Everyone pegged him as solely a writer of religious music, and assumed that he would have no feeling for dramatic music. But they were wrong. After spending four years in London (1788-92), he returned to Paris where he was able to have three straight operas, all of them successes, produced at the Théâtre Feydeau: Le Caverne, ou le repentir (1793), Paul et Virginie, ou le Triomphe le Virtu (1794) and the classical Télémaque dans l’Ile de Calypso (1796). Cherubini became a supporter and then a colleague. Le Sueur was appointed professor at the Ecole de la Garde Nationale in 1793 and then named inspecteur at the newly-formed Conservatoire. Unfortunately, due to the presence at the latter institution of the more famous and powerful Etienne-Nicholas Méhul, François-Joseph Gossec and Charles Simon Catel (all fine composers themselves), Le Sueur was limited to teaching elementary musical principles and solfège.

Despite the success of his first three operas, Le Sueur was unable to get his operas Ossian, ou Les Bardes and La mort d’Adam produced in Paris. In anger, he wrote a violent pamphlet titled Projet d’un plan général de l’instruction musicale en France in which he attacked the Conservatoire, its methods and its director. This led to his being fired in September 1802.

Reduced to poverty, he came into a great stroke of luck when Napoleon heard one of his operas, congratulated him personally, and made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In gratitude, Le Sueur composed a Triumphal March for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor. His good name restored, Le Sueur was eventually appointed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, replacing André Grétry, who had just died, at the end of 1813.

Due to all these events, plus his own considerable talent, Le Sueur was able to cautiously advise and guide young Berlioz into a musical career while still warning him of the kind of obstacles he would face in trying to establish himself as an independent composer. I refer the reader to Cairns’ excellent book for further details of the Le Sueur-Berlioz relationship. Later on, before his death, Le Sueur also taught two other French composers of renown, Charles Gounod and Ambroise Thomas.

But—and this is the crux of this article—what of Le Sueur’s own music? Unfortunately, the only complete CD I’ve been able to track down is the one of his Coronation Oratorios conducted by Christoph Spering on the Naïve label. Though solidly written, they are old-fashioned and somewhat pompous. There is, however, a performance of the motet Unxerunt Salomonen, performed as one of several pieces by various composers, at Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor, conducted by Vladimir Tchernouchenko. You can find it here. This music is considerably interesting; the opening theme bears a surprising resemblance to that of Didon’s aria in the last act of Les Troyens, “Cher Tyriens,” and one can easily hear that Le Sueur, like Berlioz, was a master of using “space” to make his music resonate. We can also hear a powerful performance of Rolando’s aria from his first opera, La Caverne, sung by baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot and the period orchestra Les Agrément by clicking here. This time there is no resemblance to Berlioz, yet the aria is powerful and moving, quite unlike the neatly ordered music of the bel canto composers. It sounds like a cross between Gluck and Spontini.

There is, however, a complete performance of Le Sueur’s second opera, a live radio broadcast of a concert performance of Paul et Virginie conducted by Hervé Niquet. It is available on CDs from House of Opera here, but also available for free streaming on YouTube.

To modern American ears, one drawback of the opera is that it has way too much spoken narration and dialogue in French, which means nothing to us and, frankly, disrupts the musical flow. Yet it is obvious that Le Sueur was a disciple of Gluck: the music bristles with the same energy, the same strophic arias and duets, similar scale passages and chromatic movement in the orchestral writing and a very dramatic forward momentum that sweeps the listener up in its very energy. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, one also hears pre-echoes of Berlioz in its writing: the biting strings and winds, the repeated notes in one of the choral passages near the beginning (about seven minutes in) which immediately reminded me of the chorus in the funeral section of Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette, and occasional orchestral swells (crescendos) allied to a driving rhythm. All in all, this opera could very easily be confused as being a formerly unknown work by Gluck, even more so than the operas of Cherubini who also modeled himself on the earlier composer.

This is no small achievement, particularly for a 34-year-old composer who until recently had only been known for his religious music. The only odd element, to our ears nowadays, is that the role of Paul is assigned to a haute-contre, a very specific kind of high tenor, almost what we would today call a tenorino. The voice of a haute-contre is placed very high in the masque—not falsetto, like a modern-day countertenor, but in a natural head tone. This kind of singer was quite familiar to French audiences of the 1780s and ‘90s, but nowadays it is rare simply because very little music calls for it and it sounds somewhat effete. In Niquet’s concert performance, Paul is sung by François-Nicolas Geslot. He is indeed a haute-contre and a pretty good one (after a somewhat infirm entrance, he warms up and is steady throughout), but like most of his breed the voice has an odd nasal quality that does not always translate to non-Gallic tastes. It takes some getting used to. The rest of the cast is superb in every way.

Yet I daresay that you will become captivated by Le Sueur’s music; it is inventive, exciting and engaging. I would prefer listening to an opera like this than the majority of Rossini’s and Donizetti’s bel canto claptrap with all of its coloratura fiorature and nonsensical ornaments: sound and fury signifying nothing. If you simply reduce the spoken dialogue somewhat, you’ll find that Paul et Virginie plays very well and holds your attention from start to finish. Granted, it is a Gluck clone and not an advancement on Gluck, as the operas of Spontini and Berlioz were, but I really enjoyed it. It has vitality and quite a bit of originality within the Gluckian style.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The OGJB Quartet Steps Forward With “Bamako”

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BAMAKO / FONDA: Listen to Dr. Cornel West. GS #2. HAYNES: Bamako.* Just a Simple Song. ALTSCHUL: Be Out S’Cool. LAKE: Stick. Is it Alright? 3 Phrase 09. LAKE-HAYNES-FONDA-ALTSCHUL: OGJB #2. OGJB #1 / Oliver Lake, a-sax/s-sax/*narr; Graham Haynes, cnt/*dousn’gouni; Joe Fonda, bs; Barry Altschul, dm/perc/*mbira / TUM Records CD 050

The OGJB Quartet is an aggregate featuring four outstanding jazz musicians, of whom the most famous are alto and soprano saxist Oliver Lake, formerly a member of the avant-garde World Saxophone Quartet of the late 1`970s-early ‘80s, and drummer Barry Altschul. Although they have been performing together since 2016, this is their first album.

They virtually explode in the first track on this album, Joe Fonda’s Listen to Dr. Cornel West. After the statement of the fairly simple theme, the two horns (Lake and cornetist Graham Haynes) go all out in a somewhat cacophonous counterpoint against each others’ very “outside” playing. Some of it I liked; some of it was a bit incoherent; but when Haynes soloed on his own, I felt that he was more in tune with the music’s structure than Lake, who squeals more than I like. When the dust settles, Fonda plays an exceptionally clear and lucid solo on bass which becomes busier and more complex as it develops. At its midpoint (7:34), the tempo straightens out a bit and becomes more swinging and less dense. Haynes’ solo at this point almost has overtones of New Orleans jazz before moving into a sort of bop-swing hybrid.

Bamako features Lake narrating a poem he wrote , “Broken in Parts,” which he first performed in 2001 with a different quartet. On this, too, Haynes plays an instrument called a dousn’gouni, of which I could find nothing online, but both the poem and the music have strong influences of American Indian music. Lake’s poem is primarily descriptive, conjuring up strong imagery of festivals in the Indian community along with juxtaposed words that have a good sound together. Much of the music, too, is concerned more with atmosphere than creative improvisation, but it’s a good atmosphere and has a certain hypnotic quality about it.

By contrast, Altschul’s Be Out S’Cool starts with a jagged medium-tempo line, following which Haynes explores the music’s outer fringes with salacious improvisations that include upward and downward scale runs. Lake plays in his usual semi-squeal style but also includes some very fine improvisation in between. The odd stuttering rhythm returns for the ride-out. Stick is the first of three Lake compositions featured on this disc, an angular bit of atonality that stays in one mode for a fairly long time. Both he and Haynes go pretty wild in their improvisations here.

Fonda’s GS #2 opens with the bass and drums before Lake and Haynes play the simple but fragmented opening line, improvising as they go along with someone blowing a police whistle in the background. The drums then fall into a nice funky groove as the music settles down a bit and a long melodic line is played. Lake then plays an angular solo with a few high squeals in it, but otherwise quite interesting and well structured. After a drum solo, he returns to squeals while Haynes plays more structured lines around him before the finish.

Altschul’s Just a Simple Song, though long-lined and not very busy, consists of just three notes, E-C-D, repeated multiple times while the bass plays arco, the drums play out of tempo and Haynes and Lake interject a few notes here and there. When the melody line changes, it has a sort of Charles Mingus-like feel to it. Unfortunately, the tune doesn’t really go anywhere, but stagnates just where it is with those little outside licks played around it like gingerbread. Things pick up, however, in the very busy and complex Is It Alright? by Lake, one of more interesting pieces, with a complex, serrated line over and around which he, Haynes and Fonda improvise.

3 Phrase 09, the third Lake composition, may be the most complex of all, combining a lyric line with an “outside” one in such a way that they play against each other from the beginning. The rhythm is also quite complex, which adds to the tension despite the relative slowness of tempo. This almost sounds like a completely improvised piece, with bass and drums going their own way around the lines of the two horns. Lake tosses in a few squeals, but for the most part works his way around the tune with excellent structure. Fonda takes an extended solo on this one as well, working in a repeated rhythmic figure of one eight note followed by two sixteenths in a rising pattern.

The last two selections, attributed to all four musicians, are possibly head arrangements given titles. The tempo is amorphous and the lines played are fragmented, yet somehow they manage to make them sound like somewhat coherent pieces. There’s a sort of Art Ensemble of Chicago feel to these, despite the all-out free section of cacophony at the four-minute mark of the first piece. OGJB #1, which follows #2, is cut from the same cloth, only with different figures to play with. It is also more cacophonous and fragmented in design, with the little splinters of themes flying outward from the center in all directions. It is also much shorter.

In toto, the music presented here is interesting and challenging. There are some down moments where, to my ears, what they attempt to do doesn’t quite come off, but for the most part it does and is clearly interesting to listen to.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Thomas Wilson’s Fascinating Symphonies

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WP 2019 - 2WILSON: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 3. Carillon / Royal Scottish National Orch.; Rory MacDonald, cond / Linn CKD 616

British composer Thomas Wilson, born in the small mining town of Trinidad, Colorado in 1927, studied at both St. Mary’s College in Aberdeen and, after World War II, at the University of Glasgow. He later taught music at the University of Glasgow and a fellow at the Royal Society in Edinburgh. Somehow, then, this American-born musician was later dubbed “The Father of Scottish Music.” His Third Symphony was written in 1979 and his Fourth in 1988. He was famous for saying that “for me, music does not simply describe, it must EXPLORE!”

This disc reverses the order of the symphonies, presenting No. 4 first. It opens with an upbeat bitonal fanfare for brass, strings and chimes, which he then almost immediately begins to expand upon. The body of strings enters as a support, and one hears other percussion instruments enter the fray: piano, glockenspiel, triangle etc. Indeed, the piano part even peeps out from behind this aggregate of sound for a brief two-bar solo before the strings, now playing a slower, more lyrical theme, take the music in an entirely different direction. One thing that struck me was that his music, to my ears, really didn’t sound like anyone else’s except in his adherence to a logical structure in development. He apparently liked very clear, transparent textures, considerably different from the usual symphonic composer, using a full orchestra almost like a chamber orchestra. There are absolutely no thick textures in his music; all was clarity and lucidity. This description may cause some readers to think that he based his aesthetic on the French composers like Debussy, but there’s nothing French-sounding about his music. There are allusions here to Stravinsky, Berg, Bartók and even a smidgen of Roy Harris, yet it doesn’t really sound like any of those composers. Even when the music opened up into brisk, dramatic sections, Wilson kept his sonorities clear and open, almost like an organist who only used the brightest stops.

And his musical imagination was very keen indeed. As the movement progresses and develops further, he keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering what will come next. Performed in one unbroken movement over nearly a half hour with individual sections, one’s attention never lags, and Wilson was not one to waste the listener’s time with superfluous or repeated phrases. Indeed, the tightness of his writing was another of his great strengths. There are no superfluous moments or flashy “dramatic gestures” in his music. If it didn’t contribute to the whole and didn’t “explore,” he simply didn’t write it in. The only repeated theme or motif is the opening of the symphony, which is quoted again towards the end as a means of completing the circle.

The Third Symphony, from 1979, is cut from the same cloth but in a different pattern. Soft, rumbling timpani introduce equally soft, menacing sounds from piano and low strings and brass. Violas scamper in a whining atonal pattern, working themselves upward in pitch while what sounds like bongo drums play in the background. The swirling atonal string figures now work their way up into the violins and become louder before a punctuated series of brass and wind chords, then the volume recedes once again as clarinets and oboes play an amorphous theme which is then worked upon. Once again, Wilson crafted a clear, transparent score that sounds as if it were using far less instruments than that of a full symphony orchestra, but that power is always in reserve. Eventually the tempo increases as we hear a series of scampering figures played in snatches by the strings, percussion and woodwinds, alternating with slow sections that suggest mystery. The piano gets an even longer solo here than in the Fourth Symphony, a sort of atonal jig that spurs the development section. And once again, the listener is caught by surprise as the music takes unexpected twists and turns, including a particularly strange passage in which a solo clarinet is heard playing long, repeated A’s. It’s the kind of moment that somehow sticks in your mind, which is probably what Wilson intended. He later repeats this as another bridge passage, just as he later still uses his ominous but syncopated rhythm a springboard for further development. He also builds up a dramatic series of transition chords which lead a (for him) quite unusual explosion from the full orchestra. Eventually it develops into a clearing of soft, simple chords, a bit reminiscent of Copland. This is absolutely wonderful music!

The final work, Carillon, opens with a medium-slow but very dramatic fanfare in an E minor mode, which is then worked out with development and contrasting ideas. This piece was written to celebrate Glasgow and “the enduring spirit and resilience of its people,” although Wilson made it clear that his music never was “Scottish” in a very specific ethnic sense. Yet even in this celebratory piece, written on commission, Wilson did not cheapen his art to produce an “easy” or populist piece. He still followed his own muse, and in fact Carillon may be the tightest-written work of the three presented here. It is certainly the most consistently dramatic in feeling, despite the quiet but uptempo middle section in which piano, harp, low strings and a little percussion interact, or the ensuing quiet passage for celesta, harp, low strings and muted trumpets. And, once again, Wilson takes the music in directions you simply don’t expect or cannot predict. A loud, dramatic flourish ends it.

For someone like me, who was unfamiliar with Wilson and his work, this CD will be a revelation, and a very good one at that.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Rebecka Ahvenniemi’s Strange Music

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AHVENNIEMI: Dada-Aria / Melis Jaatinen, mezzo / Wuthering Modes, Not Moods. Tacit-Citat-Ion / BIT20 Ensemble (String Quartet) / Winds / Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi, electronics / Herz Beim Spinnrade / Silje Aker Johnsen, sop; Ellen Ugelvik, prepared pno / L’Operette d’Amour. Som Blev Osynligt / Hilde Annine Hasselberg, sop; Manuel Hofstätter, perc / Ode to a Tree / Joshua Rubin, cl / Lucia / Yumi Murakami, pic / Banalala / Hasselberg, sop; Ahvenniemi, electronics / A Song for the Viola / Hans Gunnar Hagen, vla / Ravello RR8011

Finnish composer Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi (b. 1982), based in Bergen, Norway since 2004, applies such concepts as breath, articulation, and a “gestural or timbral quality” of sound to her works. At first blush, this would seem to indicate “ambient music,” but although her music is indeed lyrical and often tonal it is interesting and well-composed.

So much is evident in the first piece, an a cappella aria for mezzo-soprano, sung with an absolutely gorgeous tone and technique (the music calls for several quick trills) by Melis Jaatinen. It is one of those rare slow, tonal, modern pieces that absolutely mesmerizes the listener. The liner notes explain that the title, Dada-Aria, “refers to the attempt to distance the work from rationalism and intellectualism,” using a text combining “a constructed Latin-Greek-Italian-like language; an imitation of an opera aria, resulting from the idea that the sounds and articulated words can themselves be beautiful.”

In Wuthering Modes, Not Moods for string quartet, Ahvenniemi adapts her lyrical style to a string quartet, and here introduces more modern harmonies. There is a certain Nordic “glacier”-like quality about the music, which also includes some edgy passages similar to the music of Kalevi Aho except that the development, by and large, moves at a slower pace, reminding me to some extent of the music of Pēteris Vasks.

In Winds, Ahvenniemi hits us with the first of her electronics pieces. Now, my readers are pretty well aware that I generally detest electronic music because, to my ears, it’s not really musical but noisy and gimmicky. In this piece, performed by Ahvenniemi herself in 8-channel surround sound using Ambisonics, there are indeed some moments of metallic sound, and it’s clearly not music because it doesn’t have any fixed pitches, but as a concept piece it is rather interesting. She clearly captures the feeling of wind, and in fact some of the whooshing sounds here are very realistic indeed.

Herz Beim Spinnrade turns Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade inside-out, literally so: again, according to the liner notes, “the music moves from observing the scene to the inside of the experiencing body and its processes.” Schubert’s song is so completely transformed, however, that the casual listener would never recognize it, and several unusual “mouth sounds” are used to the accompaniment of a prepared piano, which occasionally makes crashing sounds in the background. This clearly does not sound, when you write it out that way, like a pleasant listening experience, and indeed it is meant to be edgy, yet it is very well written and has a weird sort of internal logic. It reminds me of some of the experimental pieces that singers like Bethany Beardslee and Dora Orenstein did back in the 1960s. It almost sounds as if Gretchen is having a nervous breakdown at her spinning wheel!

L’Operette d’Amour is a very brief (38-second) piece that uses voice with “electronics as a loop.” It, too, is interesting. Less attractive, to me, was the rather bullshitty Ode to a Tree in which a clarinet, playing monotonous, repeated notes and phrases, is placed in front of some guy yelling “Oh!” over and over into what sounds like a cistern (or maybe a toilet bowl). She can keep this one. Lucia was composed for piccolo with “electronics as amplification and delay.” This certainly didn’t sound promising to me, and indeed the music (such as it is) is pitifully fragmented and relies too much on effect and not enough on substance, although a few moments were striking in the use of very high sustained notes played against a reverb (delay) in the lower range.

Som Blev Osynligt, which explores the use of a female voice as both a singing and a percussion instrument, uses breaths in a way that reminded me of the remarkable recordings made many years ago by Sheila Chandra, except that in this case the music is less rhythmic (in fact, rhythm as such seems to be suspended) and again reminded me of the ‘60s experimental music I alluded to earlier. (Perhaps a little bit of Cathy Berberian, too!) Ahvenniemi also uses little laughs and spoken lines for the female soloist, and by and large the percussion consists of chimes, harpsichord sounds (probably electronically created), marimba, a little timpani and whooshing sounds as accompaniment.

Banalala seems to be cut from the same cloth, here using electronics in place of percussion, and indeed the same singer is used in both. The problem, to my ears, is that it is not much different from its predecessor except in the use of electronics and electric piano as accompaniment (again played by Ahvenniemi). I did, however, get a laugh out of the little tune sung by the soprano while Ahvenniemi bangs and tinkles around in the background as well as the little Baroque tune she suddenly throws in for a few bars. The soprano then intones, a few times, “Boring!” Perhaps this was meant to be more of a comedy routine than a serious piece of music, but the annoying banging sounds near the end put me off.

A Song for the Viola doesn’t have much song to it; again, it uses “fixed media” (electronics), and the soloist plays with a sound that is at once edgy and hollow-sounding. This piece, too, struck me as more bullshit than music. It goes on for three minutes, and even that is too long.

We end with the title work of this compilation, Tacit-Citat-Ion for string quartet, and here Ahvenniemi again uses edgy playing and percussive sounds, although after a while the strings play a lyrical theme that is interesting. All in all, this is a more structured and well-planned piece that I found quite interesting and, for the most part, musical in its own strange style.

A mixed bag, then. Some pieces quite interesting, thought-provoking and occasionally beautiful, with a few too many that are just full of their own self-importance with no substance.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Niescier Plays With Her New York Trio

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WP 2019 - 2NEW YORK TRIO / NIESCIER: The Surge. Cold Epiphany. …ish. Ekim. Push/Pull. Chancery Touting. 5.8. A Truck Passing a Clock Tower / Angelika Niescier, a-sax; Jonathan Finlayson, tpt; Christopher Tordini, bs; Gerald Cleaver, dm / Intakt CD 321

German avant-garde alto saxist Angelika Niescier here combines her talents with a trio of New York musicians: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

And what a rush this music is: edgy, atonal, yet always pulsing with life and, for the most part, musically cogent. Although quite obviously influenced by John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” Niescier does not fall into the trap of just playing circular chromatics in an endless chain, choosing instead to cover the full range of her instrument in both scale passages and chromatics, although there are indeed some moments where she seems to be showing off more than charting her musical course.

Trumpeter Finlayson, by contrast, takes the clearer route in his improvisations, keeping to shorter note durations and finely chiseled scalar solos—sort of a modernist version of Bobby Hackett with occasional moments reminiscent of Clifford Brown.

NiescierCold Epiphany is a very strange piece, emerging quietly in little grunts and gestures from Niescier and bassist Christopher Tordini while drummer Gerald Cleaver works out energetically behind them. Even after Finlayson enter, it pretty much stays that way to the end. …ish is a hard bop tune, with the rhythm section working frantically behind the leader’s alto improvisations, sometimes scalar and sometimes chromatic. Her solo dominates this track. In Ekim, which starts out at an extremely slow ballad tempo—almost forlorn and eerie, in fact—features the leader playing over long bowed notes in the bass and, eventually, a few soft trumpet notes and flutters from Finlayson. The melodic line here is long and sinuous, yet somewhat difficult to grasp as a “tune,” with the continuation of her playing embellishing this sparse line without really filling it in very much. Finlayson’s solo is tightly structured, which gives body to this somewhat ghostly piece, and played with an excellent tone. The piece then comes to an abrupt halt.

In Push/Pull, Niescier has created a sinuous, twisting melodic line built around her blistering-fast scales and chromatics which are then interspersed with strongly-attacked held notes. When Finlayson enters at the three-minute mark, it is with high notes that also lead into fast downward scales though, again, his solo is a model of calmness and tight structure. Eventually, things slow down as the two horns come together, first in counterpoint and then in harmony and the rhythm section stops completely before the final two bars.

FinlaysonChancery Touting is somewhat hard to describe. Niescier plays another snaky line as the melody that morphs into held notes with Cleaver playing some odd-sounding percussion (some kind of blocks or something) behind her and Tordini enters playing a rhythm that runs apposite to the saxist’s. The music increases and then increases in tempo, largely due to Niescier’s contrasts of rapid and slow figures in the improvisation. Eventually it starts to sound like electronic music as first Finlayson and then Niescier play spitting figures on their horns, distorting the sound somewhat. We return to somewhat more normal (for her) jazz in 5.8, a tune that sounds a bit like Middle Eastern belly dance music in the bridge. This one, too, is pretty much dominated by the saxist. Several different rhythms come and go in this one.

In the finale, A Truck Passing a Clock Tower, Niecsier plays soft, breathy figures on her alto while bass and drums fill in lightly behind her, then we hear Tordini playing light figures on the edge of his strings before returning to pizzicato bass. Niescier plays out-of-tempo figures while Cleaver ruminates in his own out-of-tempo figures behind her. The music suddenly stops at the two-minute mark—at first I thought it was the end of the track—before starting up again, softly and slowly with painful, whining figures on the alto before things wind back up again. (Maybe the truck hit the watchtower.) There’s a strange bass-alto sax duet that goes on for a bit, the tempo suddenly picks up and the trio (Finlayson doesn’t play on this one) starts swinging, only to stop dead again. The End.

This is truly a strange yet wonderful album of outside jazz by a master, playing with musicians who fully understand her aesthetic. Recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Yves Theiler Trio’s New CD

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WE / THEILER: Slush in Thaw. No Rank, No Hill. The Truth is, I Was Born in Argentina. WE. Beauty in Space. The Visit of Mr. Lev. Every Year / Yves Theiler, pno; Luca Sisera, bs; Lukas Mantel, dm / Intakt CD 324

Swiss jazz pianist-composer Yves Theiler, who is 31 years old, has made a name for himself in the past few years as one of European jazz’s rising stars, having played with Alexander von Schlippenbach’s orchestra as well as his own trio. Of course he has also played with other European jazz artists as well, but most of those names are unknown to me.

The opener n this set, Slush in Thaw (one of several odd names of tunes in this set) opens with what could be described as a “funky” beat, but the melodic line is highly sophisticated, even bitonal, with a more tonal middle section. When Theiler begins improvising, at around the two-minute mark, he again uses bitonality yet can navigate his way around this seeming obstacle with great ease and surprising invention. At just before six minutes in, bassist Luca Sisera also solos, displaying a rich, warm tone and remarkable melodic-harmonic invention, somewhat like Theiler but only playing single notes. Drummer Mantel supports the trio with a variety of beats and fills.

No Rank, No Hill is a slower number that begins with some remarkable effects: Theiler playing a repeated E-flat figure while Sisera plays edgy, quick-moving bowed figures on the bass. Mantel then enters with some dramatic cymbal work before backing out again and allowing Sisera to continue for a bit. When the drums re-enter, the beat becomes asymmetric and the piece really starts to take off. Theiler’s improvisation is built around this irregular rhythmic figure yet becomes more tonal as it goes along. I can see why von Schlippenbach liked this young man so much! There’s a little bit of a Monk touch in his middle chorus which I also liked very much.

Next up is The Truth is, I Was Born in Argentina, which is one of the more normal-sounding (if still a bit odd) tune titles on this disc. This one moves a bit quicker, also opening with Sisera on bass, here playing quick pizzicato figures in double time before Theiler and Mantel enter playing another somewhat funky beat with a simple but again unusual melodic line. His first solo is a single-note exploration in the middle of the keyboard, which also builds on the tune’s structure. The irregular motor rhythms played by Mantel help to propel the pianist as he explores his theme more fully, using a chord series. The title piece, WE, begins almost as a jumble of rhythm with Mantel playing fairly aggressive snare drum figures and Theiler later playing his own aggressive figures on the piano. It seems to be going nowhere, however, until the pianist suddenly begins playing a repeated four-bar theme that eventually leads into a slower section where not only the pace but also the complexity of the music eases up.

Beauty in Space is a very slow, serene piece, opening with Theiler on solo piano with Mantel coming in fairly softly behind him, playing slow paradiddles. Eventually the pianist begins playing a repetitive rhythmic figure in static harmony before the tune explodes in tempo and volume, leading into a middle section in 3 (or perhaps 3 over 4). Eventually Theiler settles into playing a repeated two-note lick in the left hand (Ab-Bb) while he improvises single-note fashion in the right. Then, surprisingly, Sisera begins playing a rapid rhythmic figure that sounds a bit like Celtic music, and Theiler responds harmonically in kind. I didn’t care much for the fade-out ending, though.

In the opening of The Visit of Mr. Lev, the music almost sounds like a swing tune, but once again it moves into strange harmonic and melodic territory; after a drum break, the tempo increases and bitonality again makes an appearance. The tempo then increases, bitonality changes to atonality, and the piece becomes quite complex indeed, including, at one point, a double-time running bass line in a quasi-boogie beat. It ends in a cacophonous riot of sound.

In the closer, Every Year, we open with  simple, lyrical theme of just a few notes which are repeated before settling into a quiet space, rare for Theiler, with sparse piano chords and equally sparse bass and drum work behind him. The tempo then picks up and Theiler stretches out and expands this simple theme in his improvisation with the bass and drums working diligently behind him. It then moves into a quieter section and ends in a lyric vein.

This is a really interesting album of well-conceived music, even in its simpler moments, which makes the listener think.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Busch Trio Records Dvořák

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DVOŘÁK: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2 / Busch Trio / Alpha 466

I missed the first CD in this series, which oddly enough contained the next two trios, Nos. 3 and 4, but since I knew those works pretty well from the superb recordings on Bridge by Trio Solisti I wanted to hear how Busch played these earlier trios.

The Busch Trio is occasionally dreamy in the soft passages of the first movement but brisk and crisp in the fast ones. This in itself is fine; I always appreciate lively, wide-awake performances of anything, but I felt they were just a shade inflexible in phrasing. Nonetheless, these readings are very much in the Czech tradition, which is forward and energetic and, as I say, the Busch Trio does not run roughshod over the more delicate moments although, to my ears, the contrasts they make seem just a bit extreme. It’s almost like being in soft moonlight one moment and pulled under the bright glare of a neon light the next.

If Trio Solisti had recorded these works (which they haven’t) there’s a chance that I might have found a bit more subtlety without lack of energy. Still, in such moments as the slow movement of the first trio, the Busch group’s elegance and sensitivity make a fine impression, and in the “Allegretto scherzando” they find exactly the right balance between energy and a bit of schmaltz.

Their performance of the first movement of the second trio seemed to me more balanced in mood, dynamics and tempo. Their phrasing is smoother and their transitions from soft to loud and back again more balanced and well-judged. In this movement, then, their interpretation is excellent. I found their approach to the sonata as a whole more consistent stylistically.

All in all, then, a really outstanding disc despite my reservations about the first movement of the first trio.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto di Cremona’s Fabulous Schubert

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WP 2019 - 2SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C. String Quartet No. 14 in D min., “Death and the Maiden” / Quatetto di Cremona; Eckart Runge, 2nd cel / Audite 23.443

When I was very young, and first getting seriously into chamber music, one of the first pieces I heard was the Schubert String Quintet in a recording by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet (with Günther Weiss on second cello)—an LP, I’m sure, that has long since vanished under the waves of the multitudes of versions that have come out since. (It was on the Westminster label, originally issued in 1950, but the copy I had was a later reissue with a different cover.) Despite what I have come to accept as gross sentimentality in their playing (aptly described by Nicholas Rast on the Classical Music.com website) appealed to my younger self, largely because, in this one piece at least, I could “feel” the ebb and flow of the music logically being performed this way. The second recording I heard was exactly the opposite: the 1964 RCA recording issued as part of the Heifetz-Piatagorsky Concerts series. The lineup was Jascha Heifetz and Israel Baker, violins; William Primrose, viola; and Gregor Piatagorsky and Gabor Rejto, cellists. I was utterly thrilled by the third and fourth movements, which I immediately recognized as superior to the Konzerthaus Quartet’s versions, but had problems with the first two movements—particularly the second, which was so achingly beautiful in that older recording that it brought me to tears.

Years passed, and I tried a few other recordings of this monumental quintet, but the only that really satisfied me was on ASV by the Lindsay String Quartet with Douglas Cummings as second cellist. For me, this performance had everything: brisk tempi when you wanted them, a bit of pullback and gemütlich when the music called for it (the second movement), and an emotional pull that neither the Heifetz nor the Alban Berg Quartet’s 1982 version on EMI could do for me. From that day to this, it has been the standard against which I judge every performance of this work.

So now we have this new version by the highly prized, and praised, Quartetto di Cremona, who bring an Italian rather than a British or Austrian sensibility to the music. And how is it?

In the first movement, simply wonderful. Not quite as much gemutlich in the opening of the first movement as the Lindsay Quartet has, but surely more than enough give-and-take in those difficult little interstices between phrases, or in the middle of phrases, that for me are vitally important to project this music properly. In addition, they have a typically Italianate string sound: brighter, more open, less creamy or thick than the Lindsay Quartet. Well, in this case it is clearly a matter of taste, but conductors like Toscanini, Rodzinski and Mitropoulos proved long ago that Schubert symphonies don’t need that heavier string sound in order to be valid, and I can say the same thing about Quartetto di Cremona’s performance here.

But what of the crucial second movement? Not quite as slow as the Lindsay performance, which is nearly three minutes longer than this one, and there is more of a feeling of forward momentum here, less a feeling of the music being suspended in time (though they do achieve this around the 4:30 mark quite well), yet miraculously they bring just as much feeling to the music and, as the performance continued, I found myself admiring the fact that these very gifted musicians could give me both that sad, elegiac feeling that the Konzerthaus and Lindsay Quartets did while binding the structure of the music together more tightly. Moreover, if Quartetto di Cremona takes it a little quicker, one could argue that the Lindsay Quartet took it too slowly. According to an article on ThoughtCo.com, the proper tempo for an adagio is between quarter=66 to 76. Lindsay takes the slow section much slower than this, at quarter=58, which is more like the tempo of a “Larghetto” (55-60 beats per minute), while Cremona takes it at quarter=73, which is correct for an “Adagio.” The Heifetz-Piatagorsky version, to my ears, had absolutely no real feeling for this movement at all, nor did the Alban Berg Quartet recording (which everyone else seems to love but I don’t). When the agitated middle section appeared, it seemed to me a bit less powerful than Lindsay’s, but not much. Let’s say that the Quartetto di Cremona internalizes the angst of this passage a bit more than Lindsay, who (I feel) properly saw it as an explosion of grief that is almost uncontrollable, and yet the Cremona Quartet does build to some very strong climaxes when needed. They also do an excellent job in using the silences in the score to mark the transition back to the “Adagio” theme, now played with variations, and here they really do play it with sympathy and deep feeling. I was quite impressed overall. They are, as the phrase goes, “honest musicians” who adhere to the score but not machines. And yes, their performance of the second half of this movement brought me to tears. When it’s played well, it always does.

After this emotional roller-coaster, the last two movements are almost like fun rides in an amusement park, yet much to my surprise the two cellists laid into the opening of the “Scherzo” with almost the kind of rich sound and accent one traditionally heard, and hears, from German chamber groups. I really appreciated this, as I’ve always felt that this music really needs a strong kickoff in order to make a proper impact—something that neither Heifetz-Piatagorsky nor the Berg Quartet did, playing it too lightly and glibly. And I have another reason for liking it played this way: it gives us a contrast to the “Allegretto” finale. If you take the tempo of the scherzo too quickly, the two movements tend to sound too much alike (as in the Heifetz-Piatagorsky recording), and in this movement Schubert reverses the pattern of the second movement, giving us a trio theme that is much slower and has great feeling. To my mind, the Cremona Quartet pulls this trick off even better than the Lindsay Quartet. They make you suddenly realize that this movement, for all its gaiety, is still connected to that second movement you just heard, and this is the first time, I think, that I ever really realized how Schubert linked these two movements together in this manner.

But the Quartetto di Cremona has more surprises in store for us in the last movement. Here, taken at a slightly slower tempo than the Lindsay recording, they extract and bring out much more detail in the music—almost like seeing the music in 3-D. And in case you’re wondering, no, there are no metronome markings in the score. Unlike Beethoven, Schubert didn’t like using metronomes, which in his time were sometimes unreliable (and tended to run a bit slow, which meant that following the exact M.M. nowadays often made the music sound too fast).

In toto, then, this is a very interesting performance that will make you think about not only tempi but also about phrasing, internal pacing and tempo relationships. It is clearly not a machine-like performance, but the work of thoughtful musicians. Since this performance made me think about the music and the tempo relationships between different sections, I would now recommend it as my preferred performance.

In their performance of the “Death and the Maiden” quartet they take a similar approach to that in the quintet, combining somewhat brisk tempi with strong accents, a bit of rubato here and there when they felt them appropriate, and good structure. Oddly enough, my favorite recording of this work dates from way back around 1927-28, an early electrical version by the now-forgotten (but once highly revered) Capet Quartet, who oddly enough combined straight tone playing, which is now considered right and proper in Romantic music (but, to my ears, not always) with brisk tempi and incredible intensity. Quartetto di Cremona doesn’t quite match them in the quickness of tempi, but they are surely fast enough to please the score-minded yet provide enough moments of rubato and rallentando to satisfy those who want their Schubert to sound a bit more Austrian than purely German—note, for instance, the slightly slower tempo they take for the coda of the first movement.

Once again, they approach the second movement with a good feeling for mystery, opening with a pale, almost ghostly tone on their instruments, yet without dragging the pace as too many quartets do. After all, this is not the same as performing the song, where the fast opening section by the maiden contrasts dramatically with the slow, sepulchral answer given by Death. All this is is an instrumental use of the second theme in a sting quartet arrangement on which a serious of variations are played. As both Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini said, music isn’t “about” anything. It’s only about notes. If there’s a story attached to it, fine, but the music is an end in itself, and those who love the song for itself will be baffled and probably bored by the lengthy variations anyway. The ensuing “Scherzo” and “Presto” go along brilliantly. I really loved this performance.

The back cover inlay of this set makes a big deal out of the fact that these performances were recording on the Paganini Quartet’s set of Stradivarius instruments for the first time. I guess that’s a nice touch for those who care, but I’m less interested in the instruments used than the final musical result, and thankfully these are performances that have both excitement and warmth. The recorded sound is also remarkable, clear and forward with just the right amount of light natural room reverb to make them sound as if they were playing in your living room. An absolutely outstanding release.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Raaf Hekkema Re-Writes “Dido and Aeneazz”

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HEKKEMA-VLOEIMANS: Dido and Aeneazz / Eric Vloeimans, tpt; Gulli Gudmundsson, bs; Jasper van Hulten, dm; Calefax Reed Quintet / Pentatone PTC5186758

My readers know that I’m not generally a fan of arrangements of classic pieces for other instruments or ensemble sizes other than the originals with the exception of expanding certain pieces of Baroque solo music for instrumental combos, and only then in rare occasions. The reason is that, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out in his Young People’s Concerts, you are taking an original conception meant to be played by a specific group of instruments and tinkering with what the composer envisioned. But of course there are exceptions to every rule—Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition being probably the most famous example, but there is also Gil Evans’ complete rewriting of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for jazz ensemble and trumpet soloist (Miles David)—and this modern instrumental version of Henry Purcell’s late 17th-century opera is, in my view, one of them.

As Raaf Hekkema puts it in the liner notes,

Where is the boundary between arranging and (re-)composing? I find it a hard line to draw. How much tinkering can the notes take until an existing piece of music has been fundamentally transformed? And then, who is the ‘author’, or what is the relationship between composer and arranger? On the other hand, can an original composition—simply, one in which the melody and harmony did not exist before—in fact have been created by a single brain, and thus claim to be ‘original’? Certainly in times when we are bombarded with music (which is also becoming steadily more diverse), it is difficult to determine where the source of the musical idea lies.

To put it in simpler terms, as once explained to me by Byron Olson, whose highly imaginative jazz-classical arrangements of Sketches of Miles and Sketches of Coltrane made such a strong impression in the 1990s, that “an arranger is a composer.” Of course, the degree to which the arranger is successful or really creative depends on the finished product and how different and detailed it is. This re-writing of Purcell’s opera for trumpet, bass, drums and a reed quintet is clearly one of the more complex I’ve ever heard.

And, as it turns out, the reference to Gil Evans is quite apt, as Hekkema and Eric Vloeimans, who composed five new pieces on this CD (“A splendid time together,” “Love Dance,” “Horizon,” “Sailors & Witches” and “Crazy Witches”), use a miniature version of some of the timbral blends that Evans created in the 1950s. The difference is that, as the suite (for that, in essence, is what it really is) moves along, we hear much more high reed sounds than in Evans, who preferred to work with low, soft brass players mixed with reeds. Of course, the orchestration here dictates much of the scoring. Calefax is made up of Oliver Boekhoorn, oboe and English horn, Ivar Berix on clarinet, Hekkema on alto sax, Jelte Althuis on bass and contrabass clarinets, and Alban Esley on bassoon. Not since Paul Laval’s “Woodwindy Ten” on the old Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street radio show have we had such an eclectic group of reeds playing jazz.

By and large, the music leans far more towards jazz than classical. Even in the many ensemble passages the rhythmic feel is that of a jazz ensemble rather than that of a classical one, although the opening of the second piece, “Peace and I are strangers grown,” is purely classical in both rhythmic feeling and phrasing. Once the solo bass enters, however, we begin moving again towards a jazz sensibility, and it is this spirit that permeates the CD. And yet Vloeimans’ trumpet solo in this piece stays quite close to the original melody rather than taking off on it in a jazz solo. Perhaps he felt that, internally speaking, he didn’t want to go too far outside the parameters of the original score in this respect. Certainly, the unusual and harmonically modern canon that follows, played by the ensemble, is not score at all. Low clarinets playing in bouncing unison and counterpoint lead off “Fear no danger, Cupid has thrown the dart,” after which the trumpet, playing now in a lower register, blends with the low clarinet, oboe, English horn and saxophone in an interesting ensemble passage. “A splendid time together” is indeed a jazz piece, in what sounds like 5/4, and sounds like a more modern interlude written as an insert into the Purcell-based music. It’s a fine piece on its own, but I’m not sure it really fits except in mood and orchestration. Here, too, Vloeimans’ solo is more adventurous, having no classical frame of reference to hold him back.

Interestingly, “The triumphs of love” also sounds entirely new and not directly based on Purcell while Vloeimans’ “Love Dance” does sound like Purcell, only updated. Even the faster middle section, which starts out in a jazz vein, eventually becomes a sort of classical canon. Go figure. For whatever reason, “The Witches” sound like a group of drunken sailors, but this is clearly fun music. “Ritornel,” after a classical-sounding reed intro, moves into a slow bass solo, then an uptempo jazz section with drums underpinning both bass and trumpet. There’s also a nice drum solo towards the end.

In “The Sailors,” Hekkema gives the music a sort of seaman’s drinking-song feel except with a jazz beat behind it. The band also sings on this one. In fact, as one listens more and more to this suite, the less one worries about the connections to the Purcell original or how close or how far it is from it. You just enjoy the music as music, for it is clearly very original and well-written and arranged. “Sailors and Witches” turns out to be a pretty jolly round in 6/8 time, with brief spots in a fast 4, before morphng into a sort of medium-slow belly dance—then, at its mid-point, a manic polka with a jazz trumpet solo. Naz drovya!

“Triumphant Witches” also starts off rather drunk-sounding before moving into Raymond Scott-type of uptempo “cartoon” music, complete with muted trumpet, then a crazy or drunken-sounding exchange amid the winds, followed by a bass solo with the winds not playing out-of-tonality drunken-sounding figures above it. “Crazy Witches” sounds like a hora which, after several permutations, increases in speed to become a kazatsky.

Needless to say, we also get a very imaginative treatment of Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth,” and this may be one of the very few tracks on this disc that you just might hear on FM radio sometime (but not on a classical station; they’d hate it), and this is followed by the sad finale, “With drooping wings.”

This is an altogether amazing and imaginative album, clearly one of the finest I’ve heard all year.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir Explores the “Voice of the Viola”

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WP 2019 - 2WEINBERG: Clarinet Sonata (arr. for Viola & Piano). KATTENBURG: Viola Sonata: I. Allegro moderato. VREDENBURG: Lamento. SHOSTAKOVICH: Viola Sonata in C / Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir, vla; Marcel Worms, pno / Zefir ZEF9657

This unusual album by violist Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir, titled The Voice of the Viola in Times of Oppression, makes use of the music of four composers who underwent real oppression—at the hands of the Nazis and/or the Soviet Communists. The most famous name here is, of course, Shostakovich, who constantly suffered censorship at the hands of the Soviet “ministers of culture” throughout his life, although ironically this viola sonata was his last composition, reflecting his sadness as being near death from lung cancer. The second most famous name is that of Weinberg, whose Clarinet Sonata, here transcribed for viola, was written in 1945 when the war was at an end.

But what of the other two? Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944) was a young composer who died at Auschwitz. Previously, he was only known for a sonata he wrote at age 17 for flute and piano, but his niece, Joyce Bergman-van Hessen, unearthed a number of other compositions in 2004, among them this lone movement from what was to have been a complete viola sonata. Max Vredenburg (1904-1976), initially studied composition in Holland but in 1926 came under the spell of French impressionists Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel while in Paris. He fled the Nazis in 1941 but was interred in a camp in Indonesia where, thankfully, his life was spared. After the war he moved to Amsterdam where he became a music critic. His Lamento was written in memory of his sister Elsa.

Although the Weinberg sonata was written at a time when he was quite obviously hurting from the loss of family members in the concentration camps, it’s not nearly as intense or aching in expression as many of his later works, but rather more melodic and lyrical than usual for him, although there is a very dramatic episode in the middle of the first movement that clearly speaks of angst. The surrounding music, however, sounds more like Shostakovich in a somewhat playful mood. Valdimarsdóttir plays it with a rich tone and wonderfully shifting moods. The middle movement, using Jewish-tinged harmonies, sounds even more chipper than the first, with bouncing, rolling triplets in the piano part. Again, towards the end of the movement, the music becomes increasingly more bitonal and intense in expression. It is only in the third movement that Weinberg brings in a feeling of isolation, loneliness and a bit of despair, and here it is pianist Marcel Worms who leads these feelings in the way he plays the opening piano-only section of this movement. When the viola enters, it, too plays solo music with a desolate feeling, punctuated by stark piano chords. When the duo finally gets together the tempo increases, the theme is developed, and the mood is a slow crescendo of emotional angst. I tell you, Weinberg didn’t sound like any other composer who ever lived. The man was entirely unique.

Kattenberg’s music, though very well-crafted, reminded me somewhat of Hindemith—not a bad thing, by any means, just not as original in expression as Weinberg. It is clearly a very fine piece, however, well crafted and with surprising and unexpected twists and turns as he develops his themes. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to complete this sonata. Despite the strong influence of Hindemith, Kattenberg’s themes are a bit more melodic—think of the Hindemith of Das Marienleben or Mathis der Maler—and uses some unusual harmonic movement in the piano part, alternating between whole tones and chromatic movement. Like so many composers of his time, he used a fair amount of what jazz musicians would later refer to as “rootless chords.” This gaves the music a feeling of not really having a tonal base, though the “feeling” of certain keys come and go as one listens. At the 5:40 mark he used a single-note, double-time bass line in the piano to propel the music to a faster tempo. This is clearly very mature-sounding music for a 24-year-old composer.

Vredenberg’s Lamento is a lyrical piece whose harmonies are clearly borrowed from the French school yet whose top line almost sounds Russian. It is not, however, one of those cuddly-goopy “mood” pieces we hear far too often nowadays, and Vredenberg develops his theme in an interesting manner, even allowing the viola a solo “cadenza” at the two-minute mark. Although the music clearly carries a feeling of loss, there is also a surprisingly strong section that sounds more resolute than submissive, as if Vredenberg was echoing the strong spirit of his departed sister rather than crying in her bier (nice pun, huh?).

The Shostakovich sonata begins with light pizzicato notes from the viola while the piano, entering under him a few bars later, plays high, light single notes as a fill, then in counterpoint to the viola’s broader melody. Considering the sad conditions under which this piece was written, it’s not as self-pitying or breast-beating as this composer could get. The first movement leans towards the minor, but with a stepwise action in the piano’s left hand that keeps the home key shifting. Around 3:30, he even sets up a dancing sort of 6/8 tempo. The second movement is surprisingly chipper, although also in the minor, with a sort of bouncing march rhythm set up by the piano. There are several surprising twists and turns in this movement as the development progresses, and the mood shifts from cool to intense and back again. The final “adagio,” which runs over 12 minutes, is certainly a lament, but for once Shostakovich has internalized his feelings of sadness and minimized the breast-beating and sometimes gauche expression of his earlier years. Perhaps he learned a little something from his good friend Weinberg just as Weinberg picked up a few things from him in his later career.

This is a surprisingly fine disc of original and moving music, much of it either little-known (the Weinberg) or unknown to many classical lovers, played from the heart and, in addition, to all this, beautifully recorded. A real gem!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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