The Music of Rhené-Emmanuel Baton

BRI95554 - cover

RHENÉ-BATON: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Suite Ancienne. Cello Sonata. Piano Trio / Leonardo Micucci, vln; Roberto Mansueto, cel; Francesco Basanisi, pno (Wolferl Trio) / Brilliant Classics BRI95554

With all the boring, same-sounding Baroque, Classical and early Romantic composers whose work gets revived ad nauseum nowadays, I sometimes wonder how a fairly interesting composer like Rhené-Emmanuel Baton, who went by the professional name of simply Rhené-Baton, ever gets shoved aside in the first place. A conductor as well as a composer, he was one of the conductors with Serge Diaghelev’s Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo and made the first recording (acoustically, in 1924) of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which was reissued for the first time ever in Warner Classics’ massive Complete Berlioz set. And, despite the sonic limitations, it’s a pretty good performance.

This music, redolent of the belle époque, the songs of Reynaldo Hahn and the chamber music of Ravel and Debussy, is also pretty good, although the first movement of his first violin sonata also struck me as combining some of the rhythms and modal motifs of American Indian music as was done a bit earlier by Edward MacDowell. Although this echt-Indian style has come in for a heap of criticism in recent decades, it was never intended to be insulting or demeaning to Native Americans, and Dvořák indulged in it as well in his Indian Lament. Clearly, Rhené-Baton was a fine, solid composer, and his music has charm, energy, good structure and interesting themes.

Of course, what I hear as American Indian themes could possibly be Breton, the area of France that Rhené-Baton came from. Whatever the case, there is a similar (but not as strong) a feel in his second Violin Sonata as well. The liner notes point out that, as a pianist as well as a conductor, Rhené-Baton wrote the much more technically demanding piano parts of these sonatas for himself, but the point is that the music is quite good: not formulaic, or sappy, or “easy listening.” Rhené-Baton keeps his themes and their variants moving forward, constantly shifting and morphing, with occasional unusual chord changes. This sonata is interesting in that it is in one long movement, lasting over 11 minutes, yet does not have contrasting sections like other such sonatas.

The Suite Ancienne, one of his later works (1933), is more like a Baroque suite in its alternation of dance movements: Prélude, Aria, Gavotte and Gigue. It’s rhythmically energetic and charming without sounding cloying, though clearly not the best music on this set…more like “classics lite.” The Cello Sonata is richer and more pensive in its first movement, the cellist playing a repeated note sequence in a slow rocking motion as the pianist plays around it before entering with its broad theme. Then, at the two-minute mark, the pianist digs in and the tempo increases while the music still retains its somewhat melancholy feeling. Yet the music becomes more feverish still, the cellist playing fast bowed notes in rapid succession, alternating with broader themes as the piano part becomes more complex as well. The second movement, more settled in both rhythm and tonality, is similarly pensive while the third movement returns us to that sort of American Indian/Breton style of music.

The real gem in this set, however, is the Piano Trio of 1923. Opening with a pensive theme played on the edge of the strings by the violin and cello, we then move into a violin-cello dialogue as the piano softly enters underneath them. Then, at the 2:20 mark, we suddenly jump into an allegro using the same theme as a basis for development. Here, Rhené-Baton used extended chords, a whole-tone scale and other interesting devices to add interest to the ongoing musical conversation, and all of it is knit together splendidly. The second movement has splendid drive and retains several features of the first. Yet what differentiates this piece from all the others is the high quality and extended length of the variations, which keep the listener engaged from start to finish.

The third movement, “Andante – Allegro vivace e agitato,” is even more interesting than the first two, beginning with a mysterious and somewhat minimal theme played on the piano, into which the violin and cello enter to work around it. Rhené-Baton uses a number of devices in the ensuing variants, yet always manages to knit the principal theme into them. This is simply masterful writing.

Although probably not a major composer, Rhené-Baton clearly does not deserve the oblivion into which he has fallen after his death. The Cello Sonata and Piano Trio are clearly fine works worthy of perpetuation and, yes, even programming by today’s chamber musicians.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Casals Plays Modern Music

NV6237 - cover

MODO QUARTO / STEWART: Three for Three. RICHARDS: Dark Radiance for Solo Cello. CAREY: Piano Trio No. 2. WELLS: Since Then. DEUTSCH: Sunset at Montélimar. BRAKEL: Poem for Cello Solo. SHORE: Day Tripping. KRAMER: Suspension of Disbelief. FUERST: Totentanz / Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, vln; Ovidiu Marinescu, cel; Anna Kislitsyna, pno / Navona NV6237

A potpourri recital of entirely new works is always fun for me to approach, and I always hope that each and every piece in such a program will interest me and be excellent.

David Nisbet Stewart’s Three for Three is described in the notes as having begun their life as piano preludes, then transcribed for piano, two trumpets and a trombone before being arranged here for piano trio. I was intrigued by the first of these pieces, titled “Jitterbug” and alluding to the swing dancers of the 1930s and ‘40s. Whether the piano, two trumpets and trombone played it in a more swinging fashion or not, I don’t know, but Trio Casals’ version, though very energetic, has absolutely no clue how to swing. The music, however, is interesting, comprised of running figures in the piano against clipped interjections and scalar figures played by the strings. The second piece, “Pastorale,” has bitonal leanings with a nice melodic line led by the cello, into which the violin feeds its own melody while the piano accompanies and occasionally interjects. Several pauses in the music towards the end also catch one’s attention. In a way, I found the final “Scherzo” the most intriguing composition of the three, using bowed eighths and triplet figures by the violin against both the cello and piano. In addition to this rhythmic momentum, Stewart has also created little moments of respite from the forward propulsion and varied the rhythm of the bowed figures to create a nice tension. The piece ends abruptly.

Emma-Ruth Richards, who wrote Dark Radiance, is into all kinds of mythological symbolism: angels, halos and trumpets, along with Greek philosophers who associate light “as a metaphor for Truth and, in the Renaissance era, Fire and Light correlate to vision.” The music itself is slow and dour in the opening, later on adding spiky atonal figures to the mix, but for me the music didn’t really go anywhere or say anything. There is a development section played by the solo cello, however, that I found moderately interesting.

I did, however, like Joanne Carey’s Piano Trio No. 2, a piece in the minor that has a nice forward propulsion and doesn’t pretend to be “about” something. Although she describes the music as “an expression of angst and the struggle to overcome it,” one can appreciate it in pure terms as well, described as “three main themes: the languid theme, which initially set the piece in motion, is based on descending minor thirds and chromatic notes and is usually accompanied by three repeated notes; an angular melodic theme, taken mostly by the cello and the violin; and a fast, energetic motive-theme that is not strictly melodic. Motives from all of these ‘themes’ are transformed, varied, and intertwined throughout the piece.” I also liked its brevity: lasting only six minutes, it says what it has to say, does so concisely, and then leaves.

Even better is Allyson Wells’ Since Then, a truly creative trio which uses contrasting motifs and rhythmic cells to create an interesting musical mosaic. Wells describes the piece as having originally been written to help a chamber quartet cope with the sadness and loss of one of their members, but now she feels that it can express anyone’s sadness and loss. Too much touchy-feely nonsense for me (I’ve had more hardship and loss in my life than these people did, but I don’t sit around to grieve and whine about it), but as I say, I did like the halting progression of the music and the way she manipulates her musical materials.

L Peter Deutsch’s Sunset at Montélimar is a surprisingly Romantic piece, written in a resolutely tonal style and having old-fashioned, broad melodies which he develops. It was very nice but could have been written by Brahms. The words of Christopher Brakel’s Poem are as follows. I leave it to you to try to decipher what it means:

Stone blood –
fossilizes the transparency
wherein innocence prays –

Lost silence –
slowly shatters beneath the snow
still black with remembrance.

What then, sacred void, can transform
black into meaning, identity into religion?

Hollow water –
fills time with darker thoughts,
then returns to frozen wind.

Night scream –
defines unpronounced unity.
Now, self-dormant ones,
I am not we.

Yeah, you tell ‘em, Chris. As for the music, it makes its way through your brain in broken, minor-key shards of notes played by the solo cello, interspersed with bowed figures. Taken on its own, without the (ahem!) poetic allusion, it’s an interesting piece in its minor angst sort of way.

Clare Shore’s Day Tripping, by contrast, is a wonderfully imaginative and atmospheric piece. She claims that each of its two sections represents a well-remembered day trip that she took, but as in the tradition of the best music, in the end it doesn’t matter because the overall musical experience is so good. “Peace at Dawn” conveys the appropriate atmosphere with simple gestures, well conceived and imaginatively constructed, while “Juniper Run” begins with the pianist knocking on his instrument before violin and cello enter, playing oddly syncopated figures in a scalar fashion. Shore builds on this unusual construction as the piece develops. Towards the end, a sort of Latin-style rhythm comes in for a few bars. This is one of the finest pieces on the entire album.

Keith Kramer’s Suspension of Disbelief is a fairly abstract piece but a fascinating one, using “scalar and harmonic materials derived from Japanese and Hindustani traditions.” Although performed in one continuous piece, there are several different sections to it, each having its own specific feeling and character. I really liked this. Kramer has a fertile musical imagination and knows how to construct a modern piece that actually goes somewhere.

We end our little excursion with Matthew Fuerst’s Totentanz, a somewhat minimalist piece with a nice hook to it. Of course our composer has to whine about climate change in his liner notes, but what do you expect when our education system refuses to teach real climate science? Thankfully, we can ignore this drivel and enjoy the music as music. I really liked the way Fuerst moved his theme around in little cells, shifting the rhythms and rearranging them as the piece develops. The piece develops a nice if quirky swing to the music, which Trio Casals plays exceptionally well. Eventually, the piece accelerates and “blows up,” out of which the solo violin plays a furtive figure, the cello follows, and the piece ends quietly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Dean Dixon: The Invisible Maestro

Dixon conducting

I was going to title this article “Dean Dixon: The Forgotten Maestro,” and that would have been apropos as well, but in the end I chose to go with invisible because that is what the music industry wished him to be. Not merely forgotten, but to as large an extent as they could help it, invisible. Just like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and for the same reason. Because he was black.

What’s ironic about this is that Dixon was not, though he is often referred to as one, an African-American. His grandparents came, as did those of black comedian Bert Williams, from the West Indies. Most African-Americans do not consider West Indians—Haitians, Dominicans, etc.—to be one of them. But in Williams’ and Dixon’s cases, it didn’t matter. They were called the “N” word just the same, and had the same uphill battles to fight.

As Dominique-René de Lerma put it in the introduction to Rufus Jones Jr.’s groundbreaking biography of Dixon, Negro at Home – Maestro Abroad:

It would have been an absurd fantasy had Edward Anderson or Harrison Ferrell given thought to conducting any ensemble other than the groups they established within their own communities on the East Coast…conductors had no organizational structure to care for funding, no hall for rehearsals or concerts, no administration to address operations, even too few music stands. Dean Dixon changed that, even if as a pioneer he did not properly benefit from his efforts, certainly not in the United States. Rudolph Dunbar and Everett Lee, Dixon’s contemporaries, shared his fate, with even less success.

Dixon coverCharles Dean Dixon, born in Harlem on January 10, 1915, was a musical prodigy whose talents were duly noticed by his working-class parents. They scraped and saved to buy him a $15 violin (nearly two weeks’ pay in those days) so that he could take proper lessons. Ironically young Charles, like so many boys his age, found that he loved his instrument but detested the boring routine of practicing. He would go to the window overlooking the street and watch the other boys playing stickball, wishing he was with them while practicing his scales and etudes. Eventually his mother closed the blinds and shutters on the window so that young Charles had to concentrate on his music.

Dixon was lucky enough to become a student at DeWitt Clinton High School which from its inception was fully integrated, quite uncommon in those days. Its position was supported by then-governor Theodore Roosevelt who in 1900 enacted a law that made it illegal for New York public schools to deny anyone an education on the basis of race. On paper, this ended segregation in New York schools, but in practice many found a way of getting around it.

Eventually, however, he had the burning urge to be a conductor. Listening to the recordings and radio broadcasts of the three biggest name conductors in his area, Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra and both Willem Mengelberg and Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, he soaked up the music and their conducting styles like a sponge. He studied conducting with Albert Stoessel at Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music. In between classes at DeWitt, Dixon, then only 16 years old, first formed an ensemble that initially consisted only of a piano and some of his violin pupils but somehow grew to 70 members, both men and women, black and white, ranging in age from 12 to 70. He called it the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra, holding rehearsals at the Harlem YMCA. They gave annual concerts despite financial hardship, but kept going anyway. Eventually a ladies’ club provided them with much-needed cash—this was after Dixon graduated from Juilliard—and performed for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.

Dean Dixon NBCThanks to the publicity from this concert, he came to the attention of the all-powerful Toscanini, then conductor of his radio-based NBC Symphony Orchestra though he still had ties to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. He gave Dixon two summer concerts with his NBC Symphony and convinced the Philharmonic-Symphony to allow him one concert in their summer series. Pleased with the results, he convinced NBC president and director David Sarnoff to hire Dixon to give several concerts on NBC radio during the fall season. His first was with the NYA Orchestra on November 23, 1941 with guest violist Emanuel Vardi of the NBC Symphony. In addition to Beethoven and Mozart, he also programmed the unusual Viola Concerto of Antonio Rolla. His NBC Symphony regular season debut took place on January 18, 1942, on which he played Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, excerpts from American composer Richard Arnell’s The Land, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody. He returned a week later, conducting another American piece by Paul Creston and the Sibelius Second Symphony. Then he disappeared for a while.

The reason, as Jones points out in his book, was racism pure and simple. Several of the white NBC musicians (probably those from the South) objected vehemently to being led by an “N” word conductor and complained to Sarnoff. When the NBC-RCA president refused to budge, they took their case to the New York Musicians’ Union which shamefully sided with them. That was the end of Dixon’s career in New York. A few years later, he was invited to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra (by Eugene Ormandy) and Boston Symphony, but the results were no different in those supposedly tolerant cities either.

Riegger V-Disc labelIn 1948 he married white classical pianist Vivian Rivkin, a fellow Juilliard pupil who he had conducted in piano concertos, and also made his first record. This was a V-Disc, issued only by the Armed Forces for servicemen to play and not for commercial release, of the second movement of avant-garde American composer Wallingford Riegger’s Third Symphony. It was a gutsy choice to say the least, particularly since only a small percentage of servicemen and women liked classical music and very few of those were partial to new music. Despite the muddy, covered sound, it is an extraordinary performance. You can listen to it HERE.

Finally, by 1949, Dixon had had enough and decided to leave the United States. The clincher came when a building manager refused to allow him admittance for an important meeting he had to attend, but he was fortunate that he had an offer to guest-conduct the French National Symphony Orchestra. As he put it, “I felt like I was on a sinking ship and if I stayed here, I’d drown. I made a start. I had the critics [on my side]. But for five years after that, nothing happened.” After the French engagement, he was American in Paris labelhired as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for two seasons (1950-51 & 1951-52). In 1952 he made his first commercial recordings: an album of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Rivkin at the keyboard) and An American in Paris for Vox, conducting the “Pro Musica Orchestra,” a pseudonym for the Vienna Symphony, and a much more adventurous album of Henry Cowell’s Symphony No. 5 and Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2 for the American Recording Society, a division of RCA Victor. Once again he conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, renamed for contractural reasons on the label as the “American Recording Society” orchestra. The latter wasn’t released until the following year, in 1953.

Despite the successes he was to have in Europe, there were some bumps in the road. The most embarrassing came in 1952 when a Swedish promoter suggested, quite seriously, that he conduct in “whiteface” and wear white gloves. He got a good break in 1953, however, when the Göteberg Symphony Orchestra hired him as their music director, a post he retained until 1960. In the meantime, he also made guest appearances in West Germany, including a famous concert with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in which his piano soloist was the world-famous Clara Haskil. From 1961 to 1974 he was music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and he was also director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for three seasons (1964-67).

The American Westminster label also signed him to conduct a fairly large series of LPs for their inexpensive classical catalog. Over the next few years, Dixon recorded a number of interesting discs for the label, including concertos by Mozart and Edward MacDowell with his wife. The orchestras he used on these recording sessions included the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.

Yet even during this relative boom period, Dixon was prejudiced against in odd ways. On the original back cover of the MacDowell piano concerti LP, for instance, both he and his wife Vivian were pictured:

MacDowell original inlay

But when the record was reissued a few years later with a different number, his photo was removed:

inlay 1

Even stranger was his phenomenal recording of the Schubert Fourth Symphony (paired with the Fifth). On the original cover his name was clearly evident:

Schubert 4th cover original

But again, the reissue a few years later completely omitted his name from the cover:

Schubert Symph 4 cover

Already, then, the very label that helped preserve some of his finest performances was making him invisible. Perhaps they, too, felt that he should be wearing whiteface.

Yet his career went fairly well in Europe, despite divorcing Vivian Rivkin in 1954 and marrying a Finnish noblewoman, Mary Mandelin. Using Göteberg, Sweden as his home base, Dixon guest conducted orchestras in virtually all of Europe’s major capitals. In addition to his large repertoire of European composers, he also helped introduce Europeans to the American music of William Grant Still, Cowell, Riegger, Copland and MacDowell.

Dixon finally returned to the United States in 1970, guest-conducting a program with the New York Philharmonic. Most people in the U.S. had forgotten about him, and although one critic had the nerve to call his exodus from America in 1949 a “self-imposed exile” (what was he supposed to do in the U.S.? Hawk newspapers on street corners?), the maturity and imagination of his performances were praised. He guest-conducted the Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras in the 1970s—but once again, he wasn’t offered a single permanent post at any major orchestra, even when there were openings. He wasn’t as ignored as he had been in the 1940s, but he wasn’t made to feel welcome either. Eventually he accepted a fairly invisible position (there’s that word “invisible” again!) with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, where he became noted for his children’s concerts. His last American appearance was with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1975—once again, invited by broad-minded music director Eugene Ormandy, who had initially given him concerts back in the 1940s.

Dixon was scheduled to make a conducting tour of Australia in 1975 but had to cancel due to severe heart problems. He returned to Europe but suffered a stroke in Zurich and died on November 3, 1976. He was only 61 years old.

When one considers all that this man accomplished against staggering odds and systemic racism, it almost seems as if he led three lives instead of one. But the invisibility factor, sadly, didn’t end with his death. Of all his many LP recordings, only one—the 1952 Vox Gershwin album—has been reissued on a cheapo CD label calling itself “Essential Recordings.” Only one of his Westminster LPs have ever come out on CD, the MacDowell Piano Concerti with his wife, and his later stereo recordings for Supraphon are all missing in action, although many of both have been uploaded on YouTube (see my selected recommendations below). The German label Audite has released three of his live broadcasts—the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 with Haskil and two performances with famed German tenor Fritz Wunderlich, Stravinsky’s Perséphone and a fabulous Beethoven Ninth Symphony—but the front covers, though listing his name, only plug the star soloists and the back covers only rave about the soloists as well…and there are no photos of him on the album cover art:

Beethoven 9th


Piano Concerto 4 cover

Thus he remains an invisible conductor. But let’s try to turn back the clock and investigate some of his finest work, shall we?

Gershwin CD coverGershwin: An American in Paris / Vienna Symphony Orchestra. An excellent performance which immediately lets even unsophisticated listeners appreciate Dixon’s extraordinary abilities. He was a conductor with his very own way of phrasing. Although this performance is on the same high level as those of Toscanini (1945) and Paul Whiteman (for Capitol in 1952), his phrasing is different from both of them.

Cowell: Symphony No. 5 / Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Cowell coveravailable for free streaming on YouTube. The sound is boxy and claustrophobic, even worse than the Gershwin, but the performance is ebullient and sizzles. Dixon had a way of combining some of the best traits of the conductors he admired most—Stokowski, Toscanini and Mengelberg—giving taut performances in which one could easily sense the structure while imbuing them with inner excitement and phrasing that was a bit of all three.

Liszt: Les Preludes and The Battle of the Huns / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1953, both available for free streaming on YouTube. Neither one of these pieces are what you would call masterpieces, but rather in that category referred to as “potboilers,” but Dixon gives them everything he’s got and makes your hair stand on end. The first of these was obviously inspired by Mengelberg’s recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Dixon imparts much the same energy and excitement while avoiding the extreme rallentandos that Mengelberg imposed on the music. Here, in Westminster’s superior sound, one can also note that he managed to combine the bright wind and string sound of Toscanini with a heavier “bottom” sound from the basses and cellos—something like Stokowski but also a bit like Wilhelm Furtwängler. This “sound” was to be a sort of trademark for him.

Bruckner: Overture in G minor / Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1959, available for free streaming on YouTube. This 1959 broadcast performance shows that Dixon could even make one of the dullest, deadest-sounding composers in Western music sound exciting.

Malipiero: Dialogo No. 1 / Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti della RAI di Napoli, available for free streaming on YouTube. A 1958 broadcast of some very modern music, which Dixon phrases in a “rounder” style than one usually hears. This was a trait he picked up from Stokowski, who always had a way of making even the most forbidding and austere score sound a bit friendly to audiences.

Schumann LP coverSchumann: Symphonies No. 3 in Eb, “Rhenish” & No. 4 in D min. / Vienna State Opera Orchestra, 1953, both available on YouTube. One of his greatest Westminster LPs, these are monumental performances combining bright upper sonorities, excellent weight on the bottom and his own unusual phrasing with great excitement. Easily the equal of Guido Cantelli’s versions.

Stravinsky: Perséphone / Doris Schade, narrator; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Sinfonie-Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks, 1960, available for free streaming on YouTube. One of the greatest “wrong language” performances you’ll ever hear of this vastly underrated piece. Once again Dixon’s phrasing is more rounded and less angular than those we normally hear from such conductors as Kent Nagano and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but the music emerges clearly and with no lack of rhythmic energy, and yes, both tenor and narrator are superb.

MacDowell label side 1MacDowell: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Vivian Rivkin, pianist; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, 1953, available for free download at the Internet Archive. Compare these performances to anyone else’s and you’ll be in shock. In fact, compare these performances to any other Vivian Rivkin recording and you’ll still be in shock. Rivkin hits the keyboard as if she were Annie Fischer and Dixon conducts with an energy that pretends the music is by Schumann. The results are bracing to say the least.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G / Clara Haskil, pianist; RIAS Symphony Orchestra, 1954, available for free streaming on YouTube. Though performed at slower tempi than I like, Dixon’s weighty bottom sound and brilliant top move the music forward with great energy, and Haskil is in top form.

Haydn: Symphony No. 92 in G, “Oxford” / Prague Symphony Orchestra (1976), available for free streaming on YouTube. This performance shows us a very different Dean Dixon: light and lyrical, even charming, using a greatly reduced orchestra and giving us the symphony as if were delicate china. When you compare this to his much heavier, more dramatic performance of the Haydn Symphony no. 53 from 1969, it’s obvious that Dixon was trying to fit in with the then-new “historically informed performance” crowd before they made Straight Tone Strings a religion. The treble is somewhat dull on this transfer, so crank up your treble controls when playing it.

Berg: Violin Concerto / Leonid Kogan, violinist; Orchestra della RAI Torino, 1968, available for free streaming on YouTube. This is a real gem: a great modern German violin concerto played by a Soviet violinist, a black American conductor and an Italian orchestra. And it works. Filled with both passion and elegance, this is one of my favorite versions of this great work.

Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C min., “Tragic” / London Philharmonic Orchestra (1954), available for free streaming on YouTube. As mentioned earlier, this was one of Dixon’s greatest achievements and certainly one of the greatest performances of this oft-rushed-through symphony I’ve ever heard. I envy your hearing it for the first time.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 / Shige Yano, soprano; Marga Höffgen, contralto; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Theo Adam, bass; Chorus des Hessischen Rundfunks; Südwestfunks Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks (1962), available for free streaming on YouTube. I purposely saved the best for last. This is a performance than combines the weight and power of Furtwängler with the clarity and almost manic drive of Toscanini: surely one of the greatest ever recorded. For the record, Wunderlich left us two other performances of the Beethoven Ninth: a studio recording conducted by Isaie Diesenhaus (the last movement is available online) and a live performance conducted in typical dead-head style by late Otto Klemperer, so if Audite just wanted to give us a “Wunderlich Beethoven Ninth” they could have used either of those. But they didn’t, and for good reason. This one is off the charts in terms of power and emotion. You’ll be breathless by the end of the last movement.

So there you have it. Dean Dixon got screwed and continues to get screwed by record companies. Discover this great conductor for yourself and see if you don’t agree with me.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Luke Gillespie’s Moving Mists


MOVING MISTS / FRAGOS-BAKER-GASPARRE: I Hear a Rhapsody. GILLESPIE: Blues for All. Moving Mists. This I Dig of Grew.2 DaNaBar.3 RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. COLTRANE: Giant Steps. KING-YOUG-VAN: Beautiful Love.1 MONK-HANIGHEN-COOTIE: ‘Round Midnight. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are / Luke Gillespie, pno; John Raymond, tpt/fl-hn; 2Pat Harbison, tpt; 2Wayne Wallace, 2Brennan Johns, tb; Walter Smith III, t-sax; Tom Walsh, 2a-sax/ 3s-sax; 2Dave Stryker, gtr; Jeremy Allen, 2Todd Coolman, bs; Steve Houghton, dm; 1Tierney Sutton, voc / Patois Records (no number)

I get a lot of jazz records for review that promise, or claim, to have innovative arrangements that nearly always fail to deliver on that promise.

This is one that does.

Anyone familiar with the old 1940s ballad tune I Hear a Rhapsody will scarcely recognize it in Gillespie’s very modern and imaginative arrangement. In fact, had I not seen the title, I probably wouldn’t have recognized it either. Taken at an uptempo, its melodic line all but unrecognizable until 4:10 into the piece, its harmonies completely changed, it comes across as a chromatic fantasy with a driving, repetitive bass line on the piano. The rhythm, too, constantly shifts from a sort of wild mambo beat to a normal jazz 4 and back again. And this is played only by the piano trio, with no horns in the mix. Phenomenal!

Gillespie’s original piece Blues for All features trumpet and saxophone playing its quirky serrated melody in 3, the rhythm loping nicely behind them. I was also impressed with John Raymond’s solo, a bit sparse and improvising on the melody as well as on the chords. Again outstanding. Walter Smith III’s tenor solo goes a bit more outside at times but is also very fine. Gillespie’s piano solo seems to combine elements of Monk and McCoy Tyner. At the end, the two horns play an interchange contrasting with each other as the pianist fills in around them.

Gillespie also rewrites My Funny Valentine, again with just the trio, so that sounds almost like a classical piece with a Latin feel to the rhythm. This time, however, the careful listener will catch the principal melody almost unchanged beneath the surface of ostinato chords and modal harmonies. Here, too, Jeremy Allen provides a very nice bass solo, but this is primarily Gillespie’s showcase.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, oddly enough, begins like a ballad with the pianist playing an extempore fantasy to open the proceedings. Again, you’d scarcely recognize the piece, at least not until the horns come roaring in to play the familiar melody with its unusual chord changes. Smith’s tenor solo, backed only by drums, is truly outstanding, and becomes even more complex once the bas and piano join them. Raymond, again on trumpet, picks his way through the minefield of Coltrane’s changes like a pro who knows how to zigzag around them without getting the least bit lost. As usual, Gillespie is outstanding, with Allen moving felicitously on bass behind him.

Next up is Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, recognizable from the beginning this time, played solo by Gillespie. It’s quite lovely but only marginally interesting. Moving Mists is an original in 3 featuring Raymond on flugelhorn, its fairly simple melody transformed and shifted around as the performance progresses. Beautiful Love, a Wayne King tune, is performed as a goopy love ballad with a softly-sung vocal by one Tierney Sutton. I could have lived without this one and in fact skipped ahead after the first minute and a half. Enough lovey-dovey crap.

This I Dig of Grew is an old-fashioned swinger, played with brio by Gillespie’s trio with a bevy of guest stars. I especially liked guitarist Dave Stryker’s solo, and alto saxist Tom Walsh also played very well, as did trumpeter Pat Harbison. With DaNaBar we’re back to ballad time (why? what is it with all these ballads on jazz records nowadays?) but at least this one is an original tune with some harmonic interest and is well arranged. Tom Walsh returns, this time on soprano sax, and his solo is a gem with the tempo changing behind him. Raymond is superb on flugelhorn once again, but the standout solo on this track belongs to Smith on tenor.

We wrap up this set with the old chestnut, All the Things You Are, played slowly by Gillespie solo. The principal interest here is in the moving bass line which, though single-note style, explores and expands the underlying harmonies of the piece in an interesting way.

By and large, this is an interesting album. Gillespie has a great ear and is a superb arranger. But the CD progresses too much in the direction of lounge lizard jazz, particularly towards the latter part of the disc, for my taste. For tracks 1-4 and 8, however, it is well worth hearing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Aki Takase’s New Solo Piano Album


WP 2019 - 2TAKASE: Crane. Hokusais Meer. TAKASE-SCHLIPPENBACH: Bach Factory. TAKASE: Live in Dream. Nihon Bridge in Edo. Hokusai Manga. Sketch of Spring. Studies of Gesture. Cherry. Silent Landscape. Dr. Beat. TAKASE-TOWADA: Hokahoka Hokusai* / Aki Takase, pno/cel/*voc; *Yoko Tawada, voc / Intakt CD 327 (live: Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, June 26-27, 2018)

At roughly the same time that Japanese-born Toshiko Akiyoshi formed her great Big band, another such pianist, Aki Takase, moved to Germany to begin her major jazz career. Whereas Akiyoshi, influenced by Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell, has always stayed true to the Bop tradition, however, Takase quickly became enmeshed in the free jazz movement in Germany, meeting and eventually marrying fellow-pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach.

In this new album, Takase once again explores various nooks and crannies of free jazz, proving once again that she is a major talent on the scene.

The opener, Crane, begins with just a few simple notes–gestures, not even a real melodic line—but she develops this material in a manner similar to that of a modern classical composer, adding little flourishes to it and moving forward in a (for her) surprisingly tonal manner. The slow progression of the music helps the average listener follow how Takase’s mind works. Unusual accidentals give the music an unsettled feeling, yet she never strays too far afield of her initial gestures while constantly adding to and developing them. Yet immediately at the beginning of the second piece, Hokusais Meer, Takase takes us into exotic, bitonal harmonic realms, tossing in right-hand flourishes and driving the rhythm with the left. Indeed, this piece consists mostly of left-hand playing in which she creates some astonishing forms and rhythms, including an insistent moto perpetuo at 3:25 that subtly shifts in harmony as it drives towards the finish. This leads without a break into the Bach Factory, using one of his pieces as a bridge to an improvisation on it in which she emphasizes the driving rhythm while revamping the harmony towards tone clusters and, in the middle, towards an atonal improvisation in which she not only swings but turns the music on its ear.

With Live in Dream, Takase is back to a slow tempo. She opens with brief right-hand sprinkles in the right hand while the left peruses atonal lines before moving towards harmonic consonance but not rhythmic consonance. On the contrary, her myriad subtle ways of breaking up the rhythm hold the listener spellbound. On Nihon Bridge in Edo Takase plays a celesta that sounds like a small calliope, using simple but quirky figures to create a sort of bizarre carnival fun-house feeling—attractive, but a bit creepy. Atonality is the watchword here.

Conversely, Hokusai Manga sounds like a boogie woogie running backwards. Takase again uses unusual chords, but this time not too esoteric. She returns to the celesta on Sketch of Spring, but this time uses more conventional and even swinging rhythms as well as more conventional chords. It sounds like a swing piece played by Fats Waller on the celesta! No soon is this finished, however, before she launches into the elusive, atonal Studies of Gesture with its pointillistic and consistent counterpoint. Cherry starts out lyrically, but Takase throws in some atonal licks before moving towards a bass line consisting of three chromatically moving chords over which she improvises a considerably complex yet swinging filigree. Later on the piece changes once again, this time into a ballad with very consonant chords.

In Silent Landscape, Takase plays slow, sparse notes in the left hand to begin with, progressing in the manner of a modern version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune until 2:15 when she suddenly introduces a subtle but unmistakable jazz beat for the improvisation. Eventually she slightly separates her two hands apart, playing slightly different rhythms in each. A real tour-de-force. Dr. Beat, on the other hand, almost seems like a return to the Bach Factory except that she isn’t playing Bach here, but her own piece, mixing the complexity of the Baroque with boogie.

In the finale, Hokahoka Hokusai, Takase recites something in Japanese (in a monotone) over her driving, swinging piano playing. It doesn’t make much sense to a non-Japanese speaker like me, but it’s fun to hear. Later on, she is joined in her reciting by Yoko Tawada.

Not only is this one of Takase’s most creative albums, it’s also one of her most accessible.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Saygun’s “Yunus Emre”

DGCD21074 - cover

SAYGUN: Yunus Emre / Birgül Su Aric, sop; Aylis Ateş, mezzo; Aydin Uştuk, ten; Tevfik Rodos, bs; Osnabrueck Youth Choir & Symphony Orch.; Naci Özgüç, cond / Dreyer Gaido DGCD21074

Ahmed Adnan Saygun is one of those composers whose music exists on the fringe of the classical establishment, the same way (as for different reasons) that the music of Harry Partch, George Antheil does and, until about 15 years ago, Mieczysław Weinberg’s music did. It is an outlier, but a fascinating one that provides us with a glimpse into the musical mind of someone who worked long and hard at creating his legacy and, in a sense, didn’t much care who appreciated it or not.

Yunus Emre is an oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra in three parts based on the work of that poet, who lived from 1240 to 1321. Emre’s work created, according to the liner notes, a “universe of encompassing love, in which ‘all humankind, without exception, was one with God.’ Saygun appreciated Emre’s simplicity and accessibility, and the power of his ability to create popular poetry with a clear language. He hence devoured all poems of this most important representative of popular mysticism.” Saygun worked on this oratorio from August 1942 to January 1943, writing in the Baroque fashion. Again from the liner notes:

Saygun wanted to bear witness and express in an internationally comprehensible form the culture and the folk music of Turkey’s impoverished and war-ravaged heartland, Anatolia. His aim was to reach out to villagers and urbanites alike, to the ignorant and to the intellectual, to the Muslim and non-Muslim. In this way, the maqams, which Saygun used, were an implement, a colour on his palette. With the Oratory, Saygun translated the rhythm and modes of folk songs into an international language. For instance, the part, which calls to mind the “segah” maqam had actually been written in Phrygian mode (In the first part choral and the third part Vivo). In his quest to make his work accessible to a larger audience, the composer had also hoped for translation into other languages. And indeed, the Oratory has been translated into English, French, German and Hungarian.

Listening to the music, you’d scarcely believe that this was written by a 20th-century Turkish composer. It sounds, rather, like a late-Romantic cantata, despite the use of some modal harmonies and Berlioz-like orchestration and choral writing. The opening section is slow and mysterious, leading into a tenor solo, after which the music rises to a loud climax and falls away. Saygun had a keen ear for orchestral color, thus there are some remarkable passages in which he pits the tuba against high winds and strings. Then, in turn, some of the orchestral music resembles Debussy’s La Mer. In the second part, Saygun introduces some driving rhythms played by the basses as the tenor sings

The ones who left a world, deceitful, lying,
They left us here, bereft, remote, and lonely
Above their graves grass is like banners flying
They left us here, bereft, remote, and lonely.

Tenor Aydin Uştuk has a superb voice, well controlled, high and ringing, but mezzo Aylis Ateş has the ugly, wobbly voice of an old woman which spoils her music for me. Thankfully, basso Tevfik Rodos has a rich, solid timbre. But the quality of the music is very high: moving and brooding in turn, yet never cheaply sentimental. The seventh section, however—“By thy fire I am burned”—is written at a faster tempo and features both our wonderful tenor and the somewhat fluttery and shrill soprano of Birgül Su Aric.

Saygun’s purposely simple approach to this score makes it accessible to all classical listeners, although to my mind the music sounds more like a Mass than a Cantata, and this in itself began to lose my interest. I don’t much like religious music unless it is more technically challenging than this (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mass in b minor, Berlioz’ Te Deum and Messe Solennelle, etc.), but if you respond to this type of music you’ll certainly enjoy this work. He was, as I say, a fine composer and a very serious one. We need more like him today.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Rich Halley Sets Foot on Terra Incognita

Halley Terra Incognita Cover

TERRA INCOGNITA / HALLEY-SHIPP-BISIO-BAKER: Opening. Forager. Centripetal. The Elms. Terra Incognita. The Journey / Rich Halley, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Newman Taylor Baker, dm / Pine Eagle Records 012

Having given a rave review to Rich Halley’s album The Outlier, I was curious to hear this latest release. This one is more free-form improvisation, not as tightly arranged or structured as the music on The Outlier. It’s really out there, like listening to some of the 1960s free jazz musicians, some of whom I really admired (and some of whom I didn’t).

Melody, harmony and rhythm are all somewhat thrown to the winds here. Newman Taylor Baker’s drums roil energetically behind Halley and pianist Matthew Shipp on Openiing, where, as in many of the pieces here, a few licks, perhaps you might even call them gestures, are tossed out and improvised on—or, perhaps more accurately, tossed out and then abandoned as Halley and Shipp attack their instruments with unbridled energy.

The results are somewhat mixed. Some of the phrases played are fascinating, and a few hold together as sequential musical statements. When this happens, all is well and good. My personal issue with some of this music is that when it goes overboard, it does so in a chaotic way. Since I am the kind of listener who prefers structure and balance in music, regardless of whether it’s jazz or classical, I found myself vacillating even within individual numbers on this disc between really appreciating what they were doing and feeling that it was just being played for shock effect.

I liked the second piece, Forager, much better than the first. Here, both the motifs used and their treatment were a little more circumspect. Shipp’s piano solo here reminded me a bit of Tristano and Halley did much less squealing while the rhythm section remained roiling and lacking a defined beat. Michael Bisio had a bass solo on this one, technically secure but musically a bit schizophrenic to my ears. Halley’s a cappella solo following the bass solo was extraordinary, leading Shipp and himself into some very creative improvising. Towards the end, they gradually slow down the tempo to provide a nice finish.

Centripetal opens with Baker’s drums playing a lively, out-of-tempo solo, but when the bass enters he is playing a fast 4, to which Halley comes roaring in with some fast running chromatic figures up and down his horn while Shipp bangs out his own figures on the keyboard. This one, too, becomes rather chaotic as it develops, and Shipp’s solo sounds as if even he doesn’t know where to go with this music. In The Elms, Halley plays a quirky sort of angular figure while Shipp plays soft, downward-moving chromatic chords behind him. This I found very interesting, and Halley develops the music somewhat in the ensuing minute before playing variants on the quirky opening. The duo play cat-and-mouse for some time, with Halley’s intriguing structures coming out as the most cogent while Shipp noodles in the background. Bass and drums play softly and minimally on this track.

The title piece is up next, using an intriguing melodic line consisting of staccato stepwise notes. This then moves into more fluid improvisation with occasional references back to the opening theme. Shipp is more creative here, skipping around the keyboard to both fill in some of Halley playing and complement it. I really enjoyed this piece; it had structure of sorts, at least until Halley went off the deep end around the 4:30 mark. The piece fades out on the bass solo. In the finale, The Journey, Baker opens with surprisingly soft drumming in a simple but irregular pattern; Shipp plays some rootless chords and Halley comes in softly and sparingly, playing brief figures that allude to a melodic line but never quite achieve one. The broken figures continue into the improvisation as well, and because they keep things at a minimal level I really enjoyed the way they shifted things around.

In toto, then, a somewhat mixed bag, but for the most part definitely worth hearing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Historic Berlioz Broadcasts…But Are They Necessary?

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BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie* / Raymond Nemorin, speaker; Michel Sénéchal, ten; Bernard Lefort, bar; BBC Chorus; London Symphony Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond / Roméo et Juliette# / Nancy Evans, mezzo; René Soames, ten; David Ward, bs; BBC Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Alfred Wallenstein, cond / Cameo Classics CC9110 (live: London, *March 7, 1957; #January 6, 1956)

On the face of it, this would seem a rather superfluous release—two mono radio broadcasts from England in the 1950s of Berlioz performers by two good but not stellar conductors—but upon closer inspection, i.e. listening, one realizes that at least half of this two-record set is well worth having.

I speak of the Fournet performance of Lélio, Berlioz’ companion piece to the Symphonie Fantastique, which so many educated critics and musical academics have been slamming for years as an inferior and flawed work. I must say immediately that I disagree with that assessment. The whole point of Lélio is that it is a stream-of-consciousness piece in which memories and emotions flood the mind, producing a narrative-with-music in which the latter comes and goes as if conjured up in a dream state. My only complaint is that, when it is performed in English-speaking countries, the narration should be in English.

But this performance has more than a little bit going for it. First, there is the narration, given with a tremendous amount of emotion and inflection as it usually is not by the little-known Raymond Nemorin. Too often, the narration of Lélio is given in a whisper, which I always feel is the complete antithesis of what the madly passionate Berlioz wanted or was all about. As for the singers, although neither have what you could call glamorous voices they sing with greater feeling and understanding of the lyrics than any other version I’ve heard. Michel Sénéchal, a top-drawer comprimario tenor who was the French equivalent of Andrea Velis or Heinz Zednik, imbues the music with just the right feeling and interpretation of the text, and both his vocal placement and diction are superb. The way Nemorin comes in during Sénéchal’s opening song, you can almost picture Berlioz himself exploding in passion over the loss of his beloved, Camille Moke, which actually happened while he wrote this piece in Italy. Whoever coached Nemorin or suggested this style of delivery to him, hats off! He’s got it right!

In addition, Fournet conducts the whole work with a sense of structure rarely heard, and also adds a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings: note, particularly, the sound he conjures up in “Froid de la mort.” The slightly subdued sound of the chorus is perfect. They don’t come blasting out at you as if singing “All’arme!” in Trovatore, but almost as if out of a dream. Our baritone, Bernard Lefort, also sounds like a comprimario. His voice is not as pleasant or as solidly grounded as Sénéchal’s, but he certainly sounds like a brigand on the loose, and here, appropriately, the chorus sings with great brio. It’s just all so French that it makes you smile. But of course, Fournet was already an old hand at Berlioz, having made the first commercial recordings of Roméo et Juliette (1942) and the Requiem (1943) for Columbia, both with tenor Georges Jouatte. Despite the mono radio sound, Fournet conjures up a splendid Berliozian sound, which of course means exceptionally clear, almost biting winds and emotional strings. Indeed, the subdued but passionate string tremolos that introduce the Aeolian Harp episode are particularly well played, and somehow or other Fournet brings out the feeling of nostalgia very well. It almost boggles the mind that he accomplished this with a British orchestra and chorus. Sonics aside, this is now my favorite recording of Lélio. It’s almost a shame that I couldn’t find any copy of his Roméo to hear.

The problem with this release is the performance of Roméo et Juliette—or, rather, the sound quality, which is exceptionally muffled, the orchestra also sounding rather distant. In my review of Warner Classics’ massive new Berlioz set, I complained about the dull top end in Riccardo Muti’s recording of this piece, which ruined the effects he was trying to make, but this is far worse. Wallenstein was a fine conductor who always seemed just on the edge of stardom but never quite made it there, so I suppose his fans will want this just because it exists, but when compared to the recordings of Toscanini, Colin Davis and Carlos Paita, this is rather a limp fish. None of the music has bite, particularly not the opening “Combats – Tumulte” which needs an edgy sound, and on top of this mezzo Nancy Evans sounds wobbly and dull in her aria. Tenor René Soames is in better voice than Evans, but his singing is too soft and lacking in energy. Only bass David Ward, of the three soloists, sings well, and he too sounds bored. Wallenstein does a fine job with the music, no question about it, but it’s like listening to the performance from outside the hall with the doors almost completely closed. The famed Queen Mab Scherzo lacks clarity, though the distant sound does give it a bit of a fairy-like feeling. Why they didn’t reissue Fournet’s 1942 recording of the piece as a companion to Lélio puzzles me; it would have been interesting to hear the same conductor in both works.

So there you have it. A great Lélio paired with a terrible recording of Roméo. If you can buy this as a download, just download the Lélio and save yourself some money.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Partch…by Harry Himself

Partch cover

THE WORLD OF HARRY PARTCH / PARTCH: Daphne of the Dunes. Barstow: 8 Hitchhiker Transcriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. Castor & Pollux / Harry Partch, kithara/surrogate kithara/chromolodeon/cloud-chamber bowls/gourdtree/ marimba/boo/bass/voc; Dean Drummond, Emil Richards, Frank Berberich, Gary Coleman, John McAllister, Linda Schell, Michael Ranta, Richard Lapore, Michael McCormick, Todd Miller, adapted vla / Columbia MS 7207, available for download or free streaming on or for free download & streaming on YouTube

Partch Delusion of the Fury

PARTCH: Delusion of the Fury / Harry Partch, zither; Jonathan Glaser, fl/perc/dm/claves; Linda Schell, adapted gtr/kithara/zither/marimba/chromatic org/ugumbu/claves; John McAllister, chromatic org I & II/Bolivian fl/ugumbu/claves; Danlee Mitchell, cloud chamber bowls/marimba/boo/chromatic org/zither/xyl/Bolivian double fl/dm / Columbia M2 30576, LP, available for free streaming on YouTube

For most classical listeners, Harry Partch is still persona non grata and his music still a confused enigma. This is mostly because of its microtonal bias, which upsets and confuses most people, but in part because while he was creating his own microtonal keyboard instruments (pianos, harpsichords and organs) in the late 1920s he was also creating his own method of composition, which does not follow prescribed rules. In the comments section under the extraordinary video of his Noh drama Delusion of the Fury is this comment from one musical snob:

Nothing special compared to Varèse, Stockhausen, Ruzicka, Boulez, Schaeffer, Henry, Xenakis, Glass or Reich. He is just one contemporary composer amongst others. It seems to me that you have never heard any other contemporary musician.

Which completely misses the point. Most of these composers did not write in or play microtonal music, and the few that did—among them György Ligeti, which the poster does not include—were standing on his shoulders. More to the point, some of these composers he mentions, particularly Varèse and Stockhausen but also Penderecki, wrote purposely ugly music intended to shock the listener. Partch wrote music that followed the speech patterns of everyday American life, particularly reflecting his long stretches during which he lived among hobos and street people. Of course, his music didn’t appeal much to them any more than it appealed to the academics, so by the time he made these recordings in 1968 and 1970 he was a lost soul, bitter from lack of recognition and still struggling to find an audience. Ironically, his biggest fans during this period were the stoned-out Hippies who dropped acid or smoked pot and found his music great to listen to while stoned, but Partch’s music is a psychedelic high without one having to use psychedelic drugs.

I found the first album by searching for the later version of Barstow as mentioned in the new Bridge release of Harry playing his earlier version of the piece. Much to my surprise and delight, the album was uploaded complete on YouTube. But then, in the suggested videos next to it, I also discovered Delusion of the Fury, so I decided to review that one as well.

Partch violaListening to the opening selection on the first album, Daphne of the Dunes, I was struck by one other thing I hadn’t noticed before, and that was how much some of his music sounded, rhythmically, like that of Moondog (Louis Hardin), another American iconoclast but, for some reason, one who is more accepted and acceptable to most people. This is largely due to the fact that, as he himself admitted, Moondog was “rhythmically avant-garde but harmonically reactionary.” He also wrote perfect fugues and canons while Partch took those forms apart and put them back together again his own way, which still upsets the Acamademics (yes, I purposely misspelled that to irk them). There’s a certain in-your-face quality to Partch’s music that also drives them crazy, but in a sense Partch was a Space-Age musical pioneer at a time when people were still brutally upset over the innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky (and of course, many still are), so there wasn’t much chance that his music would find an audience until the Space Age.

The other interesting aspect of Partch’s music is how some of it falls gratefully on the ear despite its way-out sonorities and highly syncopated rhythms. This was because he was, early on, an avid student of early (pre-Renaissance) music and knew almost as much about it as its more legitimate practitioners such as the Dolmetsch family or Ben Stad and his early music group (sadly, now completely forgotten except by record collectors). In a sense, then, Partch was both a pioneer and a reactionary who dismissed the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras as too much involved with harmony and complex classical form and not enough involved with more primal musical instincts. There are elements of belly dance and other Eastern influences in this music, which again was far ahead of its time, particularly for an American composer.

Partch was also highly concerned with sonority, not as an adjunct to his style of composition but as a major component of it. The actual sound of those gongs, bells, chromatic keyboards, kitharas, cloud chamber bowls, boos and chromatically sliding violas was as much a part of the music as the notes and rhythms being played. Of course, there were some pioneer classical composers who experimented successfully in creating a 3-D sound even within the formal classical tradition, among them Spontini, Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler, but Partch went several steps further, and this, too, upsets both the casual listeners and acamademics.

Even by comparison with the wonder chamber group of chromatic musicians known as Partch, Harry’s own performances have a certain insouciance and swagger that’s difficult to duplicate. The difference comes from, you might say, outsiders trying to replicate what he did and an original for whom this was as natural as breathing. By the same token, only a few modern musicians, among them pianist Joanne MacGregor, have had much success in channeling the weird energy that one hears in original Moondog compositions. Those who took the time to read my brief appreciation of The Beatles will get what I mean. It’s the same reason why almost no one else’s arrangements of Beatles songs sound nearly as good as the originals. It wasn’t just the specific timbre of the Beatles’ instruments and voices that made their recordings so wonderful to hear but also the arrangements themselves—sometimes simple, sometimes complex—all judiciously edited by Lennon and/or McCartney to fit their very specific style that made their recordings sound better and more interesting than any remakes. But an original like Harry Partch could take his own earlier material, expand on it, and create something that was different but equally interesting. This certainly applies to Barstow, which is richer in texture and more complex in form (particularly the echoing of the spoken lines in song) than the original.

The second side of the Columbia LP, and the second half of this little Partch concert, is taken up with Castor & Pollux which is divided into eight sections as follows:

a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

A description is given in the original LP liner notes by Danlee Mitchell:

CASTOR & POLLUX is a dance-theater work with a beguiling program. It is structured in two large sections, each section comprised of three duets and a tutti. The first section is entitled CASTOR, the second, POLLUX. The first duet of each section is titled Leda and the Swan (insemination); the second, Conception; the third, Incubation; and the tutti, Chorus of Delivery From the Egg. By its contrapuntal texture, CASTOR & POLLUX shows well the melodic capabilities of the instruments, and the two tutti section grand finales to the glory of birth. In the liner notes to PLECTRA & PERCUSSION DANCES, first issued by Partch on his own GATE 5 record label, he relates the story:

“It begins with the encounter of Zeus, the male swan, with the beautiful Leda, and ends with the hatching of the fertilized eggs–first Castor, then Pollux. From the moment of insemination, each egg uses exactly 234 beats in cracking. All of the right heavenly houses are in conjunction, and misfortune is impossible. Pairs of instruments tell the story in characteristic ways.”

The notes also provide us with an excellent technical description of Partch’s compositional methods by the composer himself:

The major contribution of Monophony [Partch’s name for his system] as an intonational system is its realization of a subtle and acoustically precise interrelation of tonalities, all stemming or expanding from unity, 1/1. This interrelation is not capable of manifold modulations to “dominants” or to any other common scale degrees; it is not capable of parallel transpositions of intricate musical structures; it does not present any tone as any specific tonality identity. Conversely, it is capable of both ordinary and hitherto unheard modulations to the natural limits imposed by Just Intonation and the arbitrary limit of 11; it is capable of an expanded sense of tonality, from Identities 1-3-5 to Identities 1-3-5-7-9-11. It is capable of great variety in that expanded sense; it does offer twenty-eight possible tonalities, more than are inherent in Equal Temperament, and therefore a greater total of tonality identities; or assumable senses, that does Equal Temperament.

So there you go. Straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Interestingly, Partch’s use of the simplest rhythmic cell, 1/1, is exactly the same used by that of avant-garde jazz composer Henry Threadgill, whom one must also cite as a descendant of Partch’s extraordinary musical aesthetic.

As for Delusion of the Fury, subtitled A Ritual of Dream and Delusion, this was in part designed as a way of striking back at the musical academics for their decades of ignoring or demeaning him. In the opening part of the film, we see close-ups of his various instruments including a percussion contraption which he called Spoils of War. At about the 3:10 mark in the film we hear a definite Middle Eastern belly-dance sort of rhythm. The music grows increasingly more complex rhythmically while the film version shows stills of performers wearing Japanese Noh-styled masks and costumes interspliced with the performance itself. Ironically, the soundtrack of the film is pristine and clear as a bell, but the video portion is blurry and muddy. Once again, the original LP liner notes are helpful in understanding Partch’s intentions:

Partch’s own words, prefacing his elaborate and complicated score, help to establish what he has called “all the information that I thought might be necessary to a performance:”

“STATEMENT: Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing – of seeing and hearing. The concept of this work inheres in the presence of the instruments on stage, the movements of musicians and chorus, the sounds they produce, the actuality of actors, of singers, of mimes, of lights; in fine, the actuality of truly integrated theater. These introductory pages consist largely of technical data. They contain no argument, no exposition. I feel that the only investigation that has genuine integrity is the seen and heard performance.

“SYNOPSIS: It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The ‘Exordium’ is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end – with the supplication ‘Pray for me!’ – he finds reconciliation.

“There is nowhere, from the beginning of the ‘Exordium’ to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but – due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness – a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, ‘fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.”

“Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, ‘Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?,’ and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.”

One can easily infer from this scenario Partch’s own anger at the judgments of his music by the academic establishment, who he considered “both deaf and nearsighted.” Some of the mime actors in the video are excellent; Partch made it clear that if they were also musicians, they must find a way to move without bumping into any of the larger contraptions onstage, but several roles are for Noh actors/dancers who do not play at all.

As the music becomes faster and more complex, all attempts at entertaining the listener disappear. This is Partch’s edgiest, longest and most dramatic score; there is no room in it for entertainment except on a higher plane. At the 56-minute mark, when black dancers are involved, the music sounds more African. Partch also splices in some scenic views of the ocean, ostensibly shown on a screen during the performance.

Partch LP labelThe entire work, which runs 72 minutes in the film but a little over 74 minutes in the commercial recording, was issued by Columbia on four LP sides which divided it up to roughly 18 ½ minutes per side—a waste of vinyl. They then compounded their error by issuing another LP on which Partch explained and played his individual instruments. This made it a three-LP set and, to make matters worse, they put it out on their more expensive (and prestigious) Masterworks label, which made it a pretty expensive investment, particularly for those who may have wanted to sample Partch’s piece but weren’t willing to shell out close to $20 in 1970 dollars for it. And, of course, neither of these Partch albums have been re-released on CD; the first is only available as MP3 downloads through Yet another reason to hate record companies.

One of the more fascinating aspects of watching the video of Delusion of the Fury is that Partch was a pioneer in the merging of modern music with dance and mime elements, an aspect of his work that goes back at least to Oedipus from 1952 and his dance satire, The Bewitched, from 1955. Benjamin Britten took this concept a step further in the 1970s with his opera Death in Venice, the production of which combined not only operatic singing and acting but also mimed characters, projections on a screen behind the performers, and the piped-in voice of Apollo from above. But once again, Harry Partch was the pioneer. By the 50-minute mark, Delusion of the Fury has almost become a modern microtonal ballet scene similar to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps. Well, what the hell, there are still thousands of people who detest Sacre.

For me, these are indispensable recordings of Partch’s music. If you enjoy him, I urge you to listen and/or watch these performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Music from Robert Groslot


WP 2019 - 2GROSLOT: Poème Secret.1, 3 Confused Conversations.2 Hibernaculum.4, 5 The Green Duck.2 The Phoenician Sailor.2, 6 Statement, Reflection & Conclusion / Eline Groslot, hp; Peter Verhoyen, 1fl /2pic; 3Geert Baeckelandt, 4Marja Pavolic, cl; Ann-Sofie Vande Ginste, Gudrun Verbanck, vln; Bieke Jacobus, vla; Lieselot Watté, cel; Stefan De Schepper, pno; Dimitri Mestdag, 5ob/6E-hn; Peter Nuytten, bsn; Eliz Erkalp, Fr-hn; Roel Avonds, bs-tb / Tyxart TXA18113

Here is another disc of chamber music by Belgian composer Robert Groslot, and it is just as fascinating as Matrix in Persian Blue which I recently reviewed. He has a real knack for combining the opaque textures of Debussy with a more driving rhythm and more modern (but not abrasive) harmonies in the manner of Honegger or Françaix. This is immediately apparent in the opener, Poème Secret, scored for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, clearly the kind of instrumental combination that someone like Debussy would have reveled in. The music opens with opaque textures but quickly introduces a strong forward propulsion in which the winds and occasionally the strings play fast, double-time figures, then drops into an Andante section before resuming its rapid pace. Whole-tone scales abound in this piece, as well as chromatic chord movement, and Groslot uses the harp sparingly for color.

The piccolo-piano duet Confused Conversations, divided into four short pieces titled “Small Talk,” “Tête-à-tête,” “Whisper” and “Schmooze,” is generally quick, witty music with a hint of Poulenc about it. Indeed, the subtle musical humor that permeates this piece, in the form of abrupt pauses and high-range piccolo twitters against the piano backdrop, is a constant joy to hear. Piccolo player Peter Verhoyen does a splendid job with it. In “Whisper,” Groslot has the piano play a running, single-note line while the piccolo tries to mime it as closely as possible, but after a few pauses they become somewhat disconnected.

Hibernaculum for woodwind quintet returns us to a Debussy/Françaix-like feeling, the opening in particular spacing the instruments out with only a few passages in which they play in concert. Once again, Groslot uses pauses as a composition device to pull the listener in, and once again he introduces witty moments where the quintet plays with a great sense of fun. Once the music really picks up its pace and gets going, the listener is in for a treat, with the contrapuntal lines interspersed with moments of intriguing scoring in which Groslot plays the individual instruments against each other like sections of an orchestra. Eventually the tempo relaxes and we get some really lovely passages as well.

Next up is the piccolo solo, The Green Duck, in which Groslot juxtaposes various musical ideas that just seem to flow into one another. At times the solo instrument creates its own counterpoint while at others it plays humorous spaced notes. The Phoenician Sailor, written for the unusual quartet of piccolo, English horn, bass trombone and piano, begins quietly in an enigmatic mood but quickly has the piccolo and piano play interjected rhythmic figures against the bass trombone line before the entire quartet begins to engage in quicker rhythms, sometimes together but more often with the instruments scored one against the other. Groslot has an outstanding ear for instrumental color, and this is nowhere more evident than in this piece. A few little motifs that remind one of sailor songs also come and go.

The finale, Statement, Reflection and Conclusion, is a flute solo in three brief movements. Once again, Verhoyen captures the mood of the music perfectly with its quirky stop-start motion and clever juxtaposition of various rhythms, some of them syncopated. Some of his music does indeed juxtapose themes, but at times Groslot does develop the music as well. You just never know what you’re going to get from moment to moment, and this is the wonderful thing about his music. All of it somehow fits together, yet it is full of surprises.

Another excellent album filled with good, interesting music, this time geared primarily towards the flute and piccolo.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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