Courvoisier & Feldman’s “Time Gone Out”

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WP 2019 - 2TIME GONE OUT / FELDMAN-COURVOISIER: Homesick for Another World. Limits of the Useful. Blindspot. Cryptoporticus. Blue Pearl. COURVOISIER: Éclats for Ornette. Time Gone Out. FELDMAN: Not a Song, Others Songs / Mark Feldman, vln; Sylvie Courvoisier, pno / Intakt INT326

Avant-garde pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, who are a married couple and have performed for more than two decades in the Courvoisier-Feldman Quartet, have also played solely as a duo on and off since 1997. This, their latest release, shows just how good free jazz can be when performed by master musicians, both of whom have classical backgrounds.

The difference between musicians of this caliber and those who just play off-the-wall figures is that Courvoisier and Feldman understand musical structure. As a result, their “free-form” jazz playing actually does have form; it’s just not a preset structure, written down and played from paper. Since they both have a firm grounding, both can hear where the other is going and thus invent figures to complement one another while contributing to the ongoing dialogue.

One can infer this, in part, from the fact that the various pieces they play on this CD are attributed to one, the other, or, more often, both. I’m sure they would simply indicate that these are free-form improvisations without any starting point or direction if they were so. Of course, most of the album’s music was co-composed by both musicians, but this, too, still indicates that some ideas were worked out in advance and that the ensuing performances are improvisations on something.

One of the more striking things about their performances is the fact that Feldman retains his strong classical technique in this idiom. He plays with a tight but noticeable vibrato; his tone is, for the most part, rich and full except for those moments where he purposely plays on the edge of the strings for dramatic effect (as he does in the very opening of Homesick for Another World). Courvoisier’s classical training is also evident in her rich, deep-in-the-keys keyboard approach, and thus, together, they do indeed create “another world” for the listener to inhabit. At about the 13:28 mark in Time Gone Out, the longest piece on this CD at 19:50, Feldman plays some extraordinary fast runs that would be beyond the technical limits of many purely jazz violinists. And, at 3:41 into Not a Song, Other Songs, Courvoisier and Feldman play together contrapuntally in the manner of classical artists—except that they have a jazz beat, and are improvising the music rather than reading from a score.

Their music is consistently atonal but not 12-tone. It has its basis in harmony, but harmony that is fluid and uses primarily rootless chords, which removes any feeling of gravity from under the listener’s feet. The phrases they use are primarily strongly accented but occasionally, as in the first (Homesick for Another World) and last (Blue Pearl) works, also utilize lyrical passages. Courvoisier only seldom uses tone clusters and does not, at least in this release, play the strings inside the piano as other avant-garde pianists do. Nor does Feldman engage in any trick devices. The material aside, they play their instruments in a fairly orthodox manner.

Courvoisier’s music does not really swing in the conventional sense of the term; it is merely improvised music with a strong rhythm. Feldman swings a little more than she does, but not as hard as did such noted jazz fiddlers as Joe Venuti, Stéphane Grappelli, Ray Nance or David Balakrishnan. Yet they complement one another; they fill the little bit of a void that exists in each others’ playing, making a complete whole of two disparate styles.

This is a truly fascinating CD, well worth hearing!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Michael Gielen Edition, Vol. 8 Issued

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WP 2019 - 2MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 8 / SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande (2 vers).1 & 2 Chamber Symphony No. 1.1 A Survivor of Warsaw.1 Modern Psalm1 / Günter Reich, speaker / Verklärte Nacht.2 Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene.2 Gurre-Lieder 2 / Robert Dean Smith, ten (Waldemar); Melanie Diener, sop (Tove); Yvonne Naef, mezzo (Waldtaube); Gerhard Siegel, ten (Klaus-Narr); Ralf Lukas, bar (Bauer); Andreas Schmidt, speaker / Die glückliche Hand2 / John Bröcheler, bar; Rundfunkchor Berlin; MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks / 5 Orchestral Pieces.2 String Quartet No. 2, arr. for soprano & string orch.1 / Slavka Taskova, sop / Variations for Orchestra.2 Violin Concerto2 / Wolfgang Marschner, vln / Die Jakobsleiter2 / John Bröcheler, bar (Gabriel); Glen Winslade, ten (Ein Bereufner); Guy Renard, ten (Ein Aufrührerischer); Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bar (Ein Ringender); James Johnson, bar (Der Auserwählte); Thomas Harper, ten (Der Mönch); Laura Aiken, sop (Der Sterbende/Die Seele); Rundfunkchor Berlin / Chamber Symphony No. 2.2 Kol Nidre2 / James Johnson, speaker; Rundfunkchor Berlin / Piano Concerto / Claude Helffer, pno / Theme and Variations.2 Konzert für Streichquartett und Orchestra, after Handel.2 Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern for quintet) / Rudolf Kolisch, vln; Severino Gazzeloni, fl; Willy Tautenhahn, cl; Konrad Lechner, cel; Michael Gielen, pno / BACH: Prelude and Fugue for Organ in Eb, BWV 552 (orch. Schoenberg).2 Komm, Gott Schöpfer heil’ger geist (orch. Schoenberg).2 Schmücke dich, o liebe seele (orch. Schoenberg).2  Fuga (Ricerata) No. 2 from “A Musical Offering”(orch. Webern)2 / J. STRAUSS Jr: Kaiserwalzer (orch. Schoenberg)2 / BERG: 7 Early Songs2 / Diener, sop / 3 Pieces for Orchestra.2 Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin & 13 Wind Instruments3 / Saschko Gawriloff, vln; Christoph Eschenbach, pno / Der Wein: Concert Aria for Soprano & Orchestra2 / Diener, sop / Symphonic Pieces from “Lulu” 2 / Christine Schäfer, sop / Violin Concerto3 / Christian Ferras, vln / WEBERN: Im Sommerwind.2 Passacaglia.2 / SCHUBERT: Incidental Music from “Rosamunde” intermixed with WEBERN: 6 Pieces for Orchestra2 / WEBERN: 10 Pieces for Orchestra.3 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. Posth.3 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10.3 Concerto for 9 Instruments.2 Das Augenlicht3 / SWR Vokalensemble / Cantata No. 12 / Christiane Oelze, sop / Variations for Orchestra2 / 1Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; 2SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 3Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt; Michael Gielen, cond / SWR Music SWR19063CD

This, the first portion of the Michael Gielen Edition to be released posthumously, focuses on the music of the three prominent members of the “New Viennese School of the early 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Webern was the strictest of those to apply the 12-tone or dodecaphonic style of writing to each of his compositions, Berg the least strict, and Schoenberg, the developer of this system, somewhere in between.

For me, however, not all of this album is indispensable, though most of it is. We are faced, for instance, right at the outset with two complete performances of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, the first with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR from a 1973 radio broadcast and the second a live performance with his longtime orchestra, the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, from 1996. We are told in the liner notes that the first-named was included because it was the more intense performance, and this is true. So why include the second? Although quite good, there are so many other recordings of this work similar to this 1996 broadcast that it becomes superfluous. The only real reason for including it, in my view, is the fact that the later digital sonics bring out a bit more detail and certainly greater sonic amplitude—but this is still not a big reason for including both.

And, much as I like them, in a sense the reissue here of famous Gielen-Schoenberg recordings that I already had in my collection—Jacob’s Ladder, Gurre-lieder, the 1909 Five Orchestral Pieces, the Piano Concerto and one of his favorite program pieces, the juxtaposition of five items from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra—made it much less of an adventure for me than most of the previous releases, but if you don’t have or haven’t heard these excellent recordings, you’re certainly in for a treat.

Gielen’s great gift as a conductor was to make even the thorniest and most forbidding 12-tone music sound lyrical, flowing and emotional, much like his great predecessors Dmitri Mitropoulos and René Leibowitz but completely unlike the colder, stricter performances of Pierre Boulez. Robert Craft and Esa-Pekka Salonen lie somewhere in-between: they impart emotion and energy to modern music but do not make them lyrical or effusive. The only other performance I’ve ever heard of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 as lyrical as this was an old recording on Columbia by the Marlboro Festival Orchestra from way back in the 1960s, and who else could have imparted even a shred of lyricism to the angst-ridden A Survivor From Warsaw while still retaining the cutting edge of the music? As Gielen put it in his memoirs, “I have always thought – and still do – that the function of art and music is to present people with the conflicts of their times and their innermost being in a paradigmatic manner – and that this is the only truth of art. Especially because Schoenberg did just this in such an overwhelming way, he is for me the greatest composer of the twentieth century. In my old age I have realized that there is something else that is no less important: music shows us, above all else, the utopian moments we yearn for!”

It should also be noted that these are the first-ever releases of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, A Survivor from Warsaw, Modern Psalm, both performances of Pelleas und Melisande, Verklärte Nacht, 5 Orchestral Pieces. Variations for Orchestra, String Quartet No. 2 and Theme and Variations, Berg’s 7 Early Songs, Chamber Concerto and Violin Concerto, and Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Variations for Orchestra and his orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 as well as the first CD issue of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, so in that sense this set is important for Gielen collectors. Perhaps SWR Music thinks you should just chuck out your current copies of Gurre-lieder, Jakob’s Ladder and the other pieces. I would simply have omitted them from this release.

As for Verklärte Nacht, it is a very fine piece but not a great one. At this early stage of his career (1899), Schoenberg, like Richard Strauss, was very much under the spell of Wagner, and this meant as much the good as the bad, which was an over-garrulous streak. Were Verklärte Nacht half as long, it would be twice as good, but even as it is the music, Schoenberg’s most Romantic score yet one he never renounced (he orchestrated the string sextet version in 1917 and revised it yet again in 1943), is moving and in some ways indescribably beautiful. As for Accompaniment for a Cinematographic Scene, written in 1929-30, the title is a bit tongue in cheek. Schoenberg himself titled it Music NOT for a Film, but since it was commissioned by the music publisher Heinrichshofen which provided music for silent films, they retitled it. It’s a fast, edgy little tone poem that would surely have scared most of the audiences out of whatever movie house it might have been played in. Gielen really digs into it.

By the way, I am not particularly pleased by annotator Paul Fiebig’s constantly quoting Theodor Adorno in the booklet. Adorno was an arrogant little snob whose long list of hatreds included jazz (which he compared to the impotent whining of emasculated men), actors (who he said were too stupid to really understand or appreciate the lines they spoke in great plays), Arturo Toscanini (who he tied in with American Jingoism, belittling his musical achievements) and popular films (which he considered trash), yet had nothing to suggest as to how to help people appreciate the arts he admired—all of which, naturally, were German and usually remote from most people’s sensibilities. Late in life, teaching in California, he received his just desserts when a group of feminists appeared topless in his classroom, frightening him half to death. He died of a well-deserved heart attack less than a year later.

Back to our regularly scheduled review. The Gurre-lieder is a superb, almost magical-sounding performance, as well it should be. Like Leibowitz and Craft before him, Gielen had the wisdom to use a lyric tenor, Robert Dean Smith, rather than a stentorian one to sing Waldemar, and an excellent soprano to sing Tove. Where he differed from most of his predecessors was in his choice of Yvonne Naef, a rich-toned contralto whose voice extends up to a high B, to sing the Wood-Dove in place of the usual light mezzo. Although Swiss, Naef’s voice has a characteristic French vibrato, even and regular but noticeable, which at first put me off a bit, but as she progressed through her long solo I began to appreciate her great musicality, diction and powers of expression. Like all other conductors, Gielen used a rough-sounding baritone for the Farmer (Bauer), but this is a “character” part and certainly not a fatal flaw. Interestingly Gerhard Siegel, the tenor who sang Klaus-Narr, had a better than usual voice for the part, and Andreas Schmidt made a good narrator though he occasionally breaks out into song. Gielen’s tempi are about the same as Craft’s in his later recording for Naxos, sometimes a bit quicker, sometimes a bit slower, but the effect is, as I mentioned earlier, consistently more lyrical, not too dissimilar from Leopold Stokowski’s groundbreaking 1932 recording. Soprano Melanie Diener’s voice is sweeter in tone than those of Jeanette Vreeland (Stokowski), Ethel Semser (Leibowitz) and Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Herbert Kegel), and much steadier than Sharon Sweet (Abbado) or Soile Iskoski (Salonen). For me, this is a nearly perfect performance of this long and difficult score, lacking neither elegance nor drama. In addition, Gielen brought out details not normally heard in most recordings of the work. (Other critcs prefer Ozawa, but his Waldemar is the ugly-sounding James McCracken, or Sinopoli, surely the most erratic and psychotic conductor who ever lived. No thanks.)

Gielen’s Die glückliche Hand is, as I mentioned earlier, a famous Gielen recording that is also quite excellent, but for those who haven’t heard them his performance of the 5 Orchestral Pieces is just as intense and detailed. The one I have is with the Netherlands Philharmonic; the one here, issued for the first time, is with his trusty SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg. Considering that this set is supposed to be an overview of his career, I’m a bit surprised that SWR Music didn’t release at least a few of his performances with other orchestras, most notably the Cincinnati Symphony, but since they’re a Eurocentric label they stuck with mostly German recordings and broadcasts. Gielen’s performance of the orchestrated version of the String Quartet No. 2 is more spacious, though still intense, and also more clearly detailed than the famous mid-1940s performance by Dmitri Mirtopoulos with the NBC Symphony (the only work programmed by a guest conductor that Toscanini tried to stop, as he detested Schoenberg’s music). And happily, soprano Slavka Taskova has a firm, attractive voice and excellent diction.

This performance of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, a 1957 mono recording with violinist Wolfgang Marschner and the Baden-Baden and Freiburg orchestra in an earlier incarnation originally issued on a Vox LP, is good but limited in sound. I prefer Israel Baker’s recording with Robert craft in stereo.

This 1973 performance of the Piano Concerto, in decent stereo, has more sonic depth and clarity than Gielen’s mono recording for Vox with Alfred Brendel, so for that reason it is a valuable item, although for me hearing Brendel, who has wasted most of his career playing old-timey stuff (Mozart-Schubert-Beethoven), the earlier performance is quite interesting.

As for the Schoenberg transcriptions of Bach, for me they are interesting because of the unusual orchestral colors and textures he used but not pieces I’d like to hear twice. They’re really no more interesting than Stokowski’s or Henry Wood’s orchestrations of Bach from the 1930s or Felix Weingartner’s infamous orchestration of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. Why bother? Aren’t the original pieces good enough for you? The same goes for his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra which is really just an arrangement of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7, but believe it or not, his arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Kaiser Waltz is actually quite charming, in part because of the (again) unusual scoring that he used.

After Schoenberg, who clearly gets the lion’s share of this album (8 of the 12 CDs), we switch over to Alban Berg. Although I really liked the way Gielen brought out the orchestral textures in the Seven Early Songs, Melanie Diener’s singing—although very solid and professional—cannot hold a candle to Jessye Norman. What is exceptional, however, is his taut, dramatic performance of the 3 Pieces for Orchestra. The sonics here are also exceptional, as in the case of Gurre-lieder, allowing a tremendous amount of detail to be heard, and the same may be said for the Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and 13 Wind Instruments although, to me, the latter is a bit too abstract and not varied enough in thematic material or harmony to make much sense.

I had never heard Berg’s concert aria Der Wein before; it’s a slow, dark, moody piece whose orchestra incongruously includes an alto saxophone for color. Written a few years after Wozzeck (1929), the vocal line is similar to that of Marie’s aria in the opera: lyrical, graciously written for the voice, but resolutely modern in tonality. Here, Diener sings splendidly with a strong dramatic inflection, and again Gielen’s conducting is superb. Berg’s music is much more varied here than in the Chamber Concerto, with inner voices that are constantly in motion, creating a dark atonal web of sound around the soloist.

The Lulu Suite is given a very lyrical reading, similar to the way Jeffrey Tate conducts the complete opera except with more atmosphere, and the soloist here is the extraordinary Christine Schäfer. Yet I feel a little frustrated when listening to this suite, as it only captures part of the opera’s spirit. The famous Violin Concerto is given an absolutely rhapsodic reading, with soloist Christian Ferris soaring sweetly above the orchestra like an atonal Fritz Kreisler. This is an invaluable recording, and I’m glad the SWR Music included it.

After Berg, Webern, whose music fills the last two CDs of this set. We start with his early, late-Romantic Im Sommerwind, yet even this early on we can hear the star differences between him and early Schoenberg. The melodic lines are more tuneful than Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht or Pelleas und Melisande, yet the musical construction is already terse and condensed. Even at age 21, Webern was not a composer given to overstatement or garrulousness; the music reminds one of Strauss, but only Strauss at his most condensed, i.e. of Don Quixote. There are some repetitions of thematic material, but not many and none too long that they overstay their welcome. Gielen’s performance is absolutely rhapsodic, making the big string section melody at the 5:35 mark really soar. Im Sommerwind points to an entirely different future for the young Webern in one respect: the music has emotion in it. This was the one thing he drained from his mature style, which one can hear in his first numbered opus, the Passacaglia of 1908 when he was 25 years old. Although still in the late Romantic mold, the music is much more objective in feeling and already the underlying harmonies are shifting under our feet as if rooted in quicksand—and the music, though powerful in places, sounds more stoic and less touching.

Following this, we hear one of Gielen’s specialties, his juxtaposition of five pieces from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra. When he performed this with the Cincinnati Symphony, the audience became annoyed and restless. They loved the Schubert but neither understood nor appreciated a note of the Webern. Gielen, quoted in the booklet, said that “My ideal program is to move a piece quite close to another one so that the first one sheds its light onto the second and vice-versa and both works appear like something new.” Regarding this particular montage, he said it “does not destroy the works but interferes with the continuity of time that separates them and therefore presents them separately…every facet of sound you can find in Schubert’s oeuvre is familiar to Webern.” But the 6 Pieces remain uncomfortable music no matter what the context. They were booed at their premiere in 1913 and met with stony silence when I heard Pierre Boulez conduct them with the New York Philharmonic in 1974. Gielen’s montage received a smattering of applause from the old guard of Cincinnati Symphony concertgoers in the early 1980s. It still sounds a bit strange, but in its own way it’s a brilliant idea not because Schubert makes you appreciate Webern better but because Webern makes you “hear” the Schubert pieces in a different way. Part of this is also due to Gielen’s sonorities, which are much leaner than one normally hears in this music, with an almost X-ray clarity brought to the score. Listening in the concert hall, just in my early 30s, I found it a bit disconcerting. The notes were the same, but this surely wasn’t the echt-Romantic Schubert I had been brought up on. But by contrast with Boulez’ cold, objective reading, Gielen brought a bit of color and warmth to Webern, and this, too, was something completely foreign to my experience. The really jarring thing about this montage is not, however, the completely different methods of composition so much as it is the juxtaposition of happy, jolly music with music that is stark and even a bit scary (particularly the second half of Webern’s “Marcia funèbre”). It’s like having Kindly Papa Gepetto tell you a bedtime story about people being beheaded as they skip and dance through the woods.

Gielen also did what he could with the two sets of 5 Pieces for Orchestra from 1913, but by this time Webern had become even more terse, almost stringent in what notes he would allow into his scores, thus the effect is more cerebral than enjoyable, but in the Concerto for 9 Instruments he presents us with a fine performance that even has a touch of humor about it. I particularly liked the warmth of the anonymous French horn player in this. He also brought some much-needed warmth to Webern’s brief cantata for chorus, Das Augenlicht, the performance of which is helped immeasurably by Christiane Oelze, the woman with the voice of crystal. I was fascinated by the delicate filigree that Gielen wove through the Variations for Orchestra and the Chamber Symphony No. 1, the latter a mono radio broadcast on which Gielen wasn’t even conducting, but just playing the piano. Needless to say, although the performance is fine the sonics are a bit rough.

Overall, then, a splendid set showing Gielen in fascinating works from the New Vienna School. If you lack the recordings I already have, you will surely find this collection indispensable if you have a proclivity towards the 12-tone style. If not, just look for the separate issues of Webern’s and Schoenberg’s earlier, more tonal works, and you’ll be happy that way.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Brahms’ Piano Quartets Recorded by Primrose

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In the publicity for this set, violinist Susanne Stanzeleit of the Primrose Quartet claims that “Prior to the recording, we undertook a lot of research into the latest historically informed performance practice which is reflected in our interpretations… Our own teachers had close and direct links back to Brahms and the playing tradition of the time so we felt very at home with the process. We used three stunning pianos dating from the mid-19th century from the Gert Hecher collection in Vienna and moved them to the famous Ehrbar Hall, where Brahms himself often performed, for the recording. To complement the sound of the pianos the three strings players changed their set ups to closely resemble the string sound of the period, using a combination of uncovered and covered gut strings.”

All of which is well and good, providing that their playing resembles that of actual 19th-century musicians who played Brahms’ music, such as violinist Joseph Joachim, a close friend of Brahms who actually recorded some of it—but as usual, it does not. Joachim, like nearly all violinists of the “straight tone” era, actually played sustained notes with a very light vibrato, almost but not quite undiscernible on his 1899-1903 recordings, only resorting to straight tone in the fast passages, where the use of vibrato actually impedes one’s speed on the fingerboard. Moreover, Joachim, like another older violinist who played for Brahms and made records, Bronislaw Huberman, used a fairly broad portamento and a good deal of it—as did other straight-toned violinists like Arnold Rosé, who came from a younger generation. Portamento was considered de rigeur if you were a “cultured” violinist in those days. Even Fritz Kreisler, the first violinist to play with constant vibrato, used a good amount of portamento in his playing.

Without that light but discernible vibrato in sustained notes, violinist Stanzeleit sounds a bit wiry in places, and without the use of portamento all the rest of their historically-informed elements are compromised to a large extent. You are not allowed to choose what you like from past performance practices and omit what you don’t like. Either you play the music the way Joachim and Huberman (who left us two recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto, the work he played in Brahms’ presence to great acclaim) played it, or you cannot claim to be historically correct.

Like so many modern-day HIP performers, the Primrose Quartet plays in a taut, driving style, but here, portamento aside, this is the correct way to play Brahms. It’s a pity that Fritz Steinbach, Brahms’ favorite conductor, did not leave us any recordings, and it’s difficult to judge his own work through the recordings of his conducting pupils because their own styles were widely divergent, but as in the case of Beethoven’s Symphonies I would refer the listener to the recordings of Brahms’ Symphonies by Felix Weingartner, a conductor four years older than Toscanini who grew up in the era of Hans Richter and von Bülow (the latter of whom he detested, by the way) and who also heard Steinbach conduct Brahms, as did Toscanini. Both of their recordings of his symphonies are fleeter and much less “Romantic” than those of Beecham and Furtwängler, and, I am sure, come closer to what Steinbach did with the music of that composer than, say, Hans Knappsertsbusch, the slowest and most mannered of Steinbach’s conducting pupils (although he arrived at that style later in life; his recordings of the late 1920s and early ‘30s are considerably faster and tauter than his later work).

Thus we have here a dichotomy: musically valid and often intense readings of these quartets in which the violinist’s wiry tone stands out rather than blending with the viola and cello. Granted, the dated early acoustic sound of Joachim’s recordings probably mask some of his actual tone, but what we hear is considerably warmer in timbre. I found myself liking much of what I heard in this set, particularly the wonderfully warm playing of the cellist, and thankfully the pianos used, a Blüthner, an Ehrbar and a Streicher, lack the thin, jangly quality of early 19th century keyboards used by Schubert and Beethoven.

I realize that modern ears are not used to portamento, particularly the broad sort that was used in Brahms’ time, but that’s just too bad. I’m still not used to this constant straight tone, in part because I know it’s not historically correct. Another aspect to consider here is the use of dynamics inflections. In the finale of the Op. 60 quartet, for instance, when the piano and cello increase the volume to produce a powerful sound, the thinness of the violin tone again sticks out as it shouldn’t and does not really sound larger in tone, merely a little bit louder, which is not the same thing.

For an example of a chamber music group that used straight tone up until 1928, when their leader died and they were forced to disband, I recommend to you the recordings of string quartets by Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Debussy by the Capet Quartet, who left us some extremely valuable and exciting electrical recordings from 1926-28. This is straight tone with a style and a way of playing in which all four musicians blend their sound with the perfection usually attributed to modern quartets, and they played with an intensity that even outstrips most modern recordings of these works.

Mind you, I’m not trying to come down too hard on the Primrose Quartet. I’m trying to help them come closer to the ideal they are so obviously seeking. If they listen to Joachim and Huberman play Brahms and the Capet Quartet whose founder and leader, Lucien Capet, originally played violin in cafés and bistros (as, ironically, so did Brahms himself on the piano), they will learn more about the actual style of the straight-tone era and thus improve the quality of their music-making. They come closest to their ideal in the famous “Ronda alla Zingara” of the Op. 25 Quartet, yet here I was surprised to hear them occasionally pulling back on the tempo, introducing ritards as well as actually playing whole bars of music (prior to the trio) in a slower tempo than the surrounding material. I’m not convinced that this is right. Brahms caught the “Gypsy bug” when he played whorehouse piano on the Leipzig docks (a period akin to the Beatles playing in the Hamburg Reeperbahn) and, although Gypsy (or Rom) music does indeed introduce moments of rubato or ritards, they are moments only and not wholesale changes for four to eight bars.

In short, the Primrose Quartet comes close to their goal of an authentic Brahms style but not quite close enough. Perhaps, in rethinking their approach, adding a bit of portamento and studying Gypsy style a bit more closely, they will indeed be able to give us really authentic Brahms performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Sutherland’s “Euryanthe” Gets the Nimbus Treatment

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WP 2019 - 2WEBER: Euryanthe / Kurt Böhme, bs (King Ludwig VI); Joan Sutherland, sop (Euryanthe); Marianne Schech, sop (Eglantine); Frans Vroons, ten (Adolar); Otakar Kraus, bar (Lysiart); Beryl Hatt, sop (Bertha); Lloyd Strauss-Smith, ten (Rudolf); BBC Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Fritz Stiedry, cond / Naxos NI7969 (live: London, 1955)

This famous live radio broadcast of Euryanthe, though cut (and lacking the soprano’s most dramatic aria), has had a wealth of circulation over the decades solely due to the presence of Joan Sutherland in the title role. Among its previous CD issues were ones on Andromeda, Ponto and Celestial Audio (an Australian pirate label), and all of them have had ragged sound—and small wonder. The original source for most of these issues has been the original 1967 LP release by (drum roll, please!) the infamous Eddie J. Smith, whose discs always seemed to be made of black limestone rather than vinyl and had a sound quality akin to a late-1920s broadcast full of static and played back with a steel needle on a wind-up gramophone.

This performance is also uploaded complete on YouTube, and here, too (they do not identify their source) the sound quality is rough, but listenable. I would suggest that it might be the Andromeda release; in general, they do try to clean up their old broadcast recordings to some degree. But here we have the whole thing on Nimbus Prima Voce, a company known as much for trying to get the best sources as for doctoring their releases of old 78s by playing them into a nineteen-foot (six meter) horn with an immense (8 feet high) aperture at the end into a large room and then record them. Once in a blue moon, as in the case of their collections by Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Conchita Supervia, their enhancements actually do work and add much-needed ambience around the extraordinarily dry acoustics of the original records, but more often than not you end up with recordings swimming in reverb.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of this performance and its sound quality, let’s go over Joan Sutherland. She always had a large and somewhat plummy soprano and she always had a rather generic approach to interpretation. The former I liked; the latter I hated. Working with her accompanist, amanuensis and later husband, Richard Bonynge, she was able to extend her upper register by almost an octave, making her a large-voiced “coloratura” soprano, but in gaining those upper notes she sacrificed diction. In this early live performance, as in all of her recordings and broadcasts through 1956 or early ’57, you can hear her singing consonants. By 1959, the consonants were a hit-or-miss affair, as in her famous recording as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni under Giulini. By 1963, you couldn’t understand a damn word she sang. Everything was funneled into a sort of goopy tunnel sound, all vowels, with nary a consonant in sight. The only time she sang consonants after that was, shockingly enough, in her mid-1970s recording in the title role of Turandot, but in regaining her consonants her tone sounded a bit raw, her open tone exciting but lacking beauty. She was not one of my favorite sopranos by a long shot.

Here, she exhibits a bit of unsteadiness in her entrance but warms up within a couple of minutes. She surely isn’t the most exciting Euryanthe on records, but she is pretty good compared to what we got out of her later on. Marianne Schech, singing the secondary soprano role of Eglantine, had one of those “typical” German soprano voices of the 1950s: solid, well-schoooled, but just a bit dry with a very Germanic sound, but she’s Kirsten Flagstad compared to Rita “Rooter” Hunter, the most God-awful dramatic soprano in history, on the 1974 Marek Janowski recording.

Dutch tenor Frans Vroons, woefully under-recorded even in his own country (the Philips label started out as a Dutch company, and recorded him in a few arias, but not much else, and he was Iopas in Sir Thomas Beecham’s boxy-sounding 1947 recording of Berlioz’ Les Troyens), had a slightly dry but powerful lyric spinto voice, and he is easily the best Adolar on records. Yet the real standout here is German basso Kurt Böhme, a noted Fafner in Wagner’s Ring, as King Ludwig VI. Despite a slight unsteadiness in sustained notes (not quite as bad as Josef Griendl at his worst), his rich, powerful voice dominates every scene he’s in, as well it should.

A real surprise, to me, was the exciting conducting of Fritz Stiedry, at that time a repertoire conductor at the Metropolitan Opera who virtually ruined every Italian opera he led (including the Don Carlo of Rudolf Bing’s opening night in November 1950). His Italian performances were stodgy, leaden, lacking any sweep or forward momentum, but he was a vain and jealous man who, along with other veterans at the Met, blocked the career of Rumanian conductor Jonel Perlea, a Toscanini favorite whose 1955 Aida recording remains in many ways the benchmark performance even today. Here, however, in a German repertoire item, Stiedry is surprisingly taut and exciting, rivaling Janowski (the best-conducted Euryanthe on records despite the poor singing of Gedda and the awful squalling of Hunter) for drive and excitement. A shame he didn’t at least include the great Act III soprano aria, “Schirmender Engel Schar”; if he had, I could have lived with all the other cuts.

The good news is that, by some miracle, Nimbus has managed to greatly improve the sound (gone are the occasional static crackle and congested vocal moments) without adding too much ambience, and what they have added helps the sound immeasurably. No longer does it sound like a boxy horror. Except for the very first chord of the overture, which still retains a small trace of distortion, the sound opens up and has real sheen, not only in the orchestra’s string section but also with the chorus and singers. Indeed, it particularly helps tenor Frans Vroons, whose voice was warm and powerful but a bit dry in the midrange.

Although the music of Euryanthe is clearly among Weber’s very best—it influenced both Schumann’s Genoveva and Wagner’s Tannhäuser—it has been a virtual stranger in the opera house due to the idiotic libretto, which one critic opined “makes the libretto of Il Trovatore Pulitzer-Prize-winning material,” but in this case we have Weber the blame. His librettists tried to make a more interesting and coherent story out of it, but the composer, fearing censorship, insisted on their making it weaker and less sensible. Yet Mahler said of one of its writers, Helmina von Chézy, that she was “a poetess with a full heart and an empty head.” The lead role is clearly no strong woman or an Einstein, but a sappy romantic woman loved by two men who only occasionally has real dramatic moments. In this performance, as in many given nowadays, the spoken dialogue has thankfully been eliminated, allowing us to appreciate the superb score all the better.

There is no question, however, that on balance this is the BEST performance of Euryanthe. The only three complete stereo commercial recordings—conducted by Janowski, Gérard Korsten and Leon Botstein—suffer from deficient singing in principal roles, the latter two almost consistently awful. So I say, go for it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Stephanie & Paolo Do Their Trick

Paolo and Stephanie

I’ve written several good reviews of the recordings by duo jazz pianists Paolo Alderighi and Stephanie Trick, the husband-and-wife pair who have been creating a sensation in the swing and trad jazz worlds, and I’ve also watched several of their video concerts, but nothing quite prepared me for this blockbuster performance. It’s the Benny Goodman Trio version of Avalon played by the duo with clarinetist Engelbert Wrobel and drummer Martin Breimschmid, who surprisingly also gets in on the act at the keyboard.

Watch the whole thing. It will boggle your mind. Guaranteed.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Reginald Foresythe and his Unusual Music

Reginald Foresythe

Reginald Foresythe, 1934 photo inscribed to critic Leonard Feather.

Reginald Foresythe remains one of the most unique figures in the early blending of jazz and classical music. To some he is an enigmatic or mysterious figure, but that is largely due to the fact that the period of his prime was rather short (1933-36) and, although he lived another 20 years, his appearances and performances after the Second World War were infrequent and disappointing, failing to re-establish his credentials as a musical visionary. Yet during that early period he was clearly one of the most admired and/or just plain strange, and therefore exotic, figures in the world of music and made an almost indelible impression on a great many American musical talents. Pianist-bandleader Earl Hines recorded one of his “Hymns to Darkness,” Deep Forest, and made it his theme song until he disbanded in 1944; Duke Ellington was so impressed that he let him move in with him at his posh Harlem apartment, eventually to his dismay (more on that later); and other compositions of his were recorded by talents as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Chick Bullock, Ambrose, Glen Gray, Fats Waller, Adrian Rollini, Lew Stone, Hal Kemp, Benny Goodman and even the ersatz “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman. For a few golden years, Foresythe was the center of a musical movement that seemed as if it was going to blossom into an avant-garde form of cool jazz nearly 17 years ahead of its time.

But Foresythe had a problem fitting in, particularly in the still-racially-divided America of the early Depression era, because he was a mulatto. Born in England in May 1907, his father was an African barrister of Sierra Leone origin. Although Foresythe often claimed that his mother was German—probably to irk the Nazis—she was in fact of Scottish heritage. Although Charles and Charlotte Foresythe lived as a couple, they weren’t legally married until September 1909. For some unknown reason, Charles Foresythe moved back to his hometown of Lagos in early 1913, where he was joined by six-year-old Reginald and his younger sister Cassandra in June, but tragedy struck when their father died within a year of unknown circumstances.

Yet Charles left his family in very good financial circumstances, so much so that Reginald was given a private education in both regular school subjects as well as in piano and composition. According to a wonderful article on Foresythe by Terry Brown on the website 78 rpm Community, Reginald got his first gigs

playing Saturday night dances at Reading Town Hall, during his holidays from school at Leigh on Sea. According to his friend, Geoffrey Marne, it was here that Foresythe, was, ‘brought into contact, not with dance musicians, but with an ex-army clarinetist, and others with rather irregular ideas of dance music’. Marne goes on to say, ‘But Reggie knew even less about jazz than they did. Result: they decided to find another pianist!’ When Foresythe left school in 1923, his language abilities including French, German and Spanish landed him a job with a Translating Bureau in the City of London. Again according to Geoffrey Marne, Foresythe, ‘After hours at the office, would occasionally do a little semi-professional musical work as a very casual pastime’.

But Foresythe’s progress was about to receive a considerable boost when in the summer of 1928, Foresythe received a telephone call from a representative of American black singer, Zaidee Jackson, who had heard Foresythe’s playing in London, and was desperate to recruit a pianist for a night club she was opening there, that very weekend. Reginald dashed over the channel and Ms Jackson, liked what she heard and took Foresythe on as her accompanist. A little later, he returned with her to London, and they both went into cabaret for a season at the Piccadilly Hotel. Whilst there, Foresythe struck up a friendship with leading Harlem musical theatre tenor, Walter Richardson, who had come to London to play, ‘Uncle Ned’ in “Virginia”, a musical comedy which opened at the Palace Theatre on 24 October 1928. Urbane and cultured, Richardson, the son of a Methodist minister was born on 12 September 1891 in Winston-Salem, New Connecticut. He studied at Claffin University in South Carolina and later took medicine at Howard University in Washington. Reginald discovered in Richardson a kindred spirit with both men holding forthright views on equality and racism. Following the run of ‘Virginia’, Foresythe was invited by Richardson, (and his wife), to become his accompanist and, with Foresythe eager to see the world, they embarked on a tour abroad, taking in much of Europe and Italy where eventually, via South Africa, they reached Melbourne, Australia on 22 July 1929. Richardson was originally booked to play ‘Joe’ in a production of ‘Showboat’ in Adelaide, but his tenor voice was deemed unsuitable for what is essentially a bass role, and consequently both he and Foresythe were booked by Australian impresario, J.C. Williamson, on a vaudeville tour. The pair made their debut at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal, on 10 August 1929, and both spoke in an article appearing in the Adelaide Advertiser, shortly after opening. Under a banner headline, ‘Roll Away Clouds’, (one of Richardson’s songs from, ‘Virginia’), appears a second headline, ‘A Negro Singers’ Hope’. There follows a fascinating article which is worth quoting at length as it not only provides an insight into Richardson’s and Foresythe’s views on race issues, but also highlights the inherent racism of the reporter concerned. In the article Richardson, ‘Hoped to roll away something of the cloud of racial prejudice against the negro by proving that negroes can not only be singers and entertainers, but gentlemen’. ‘Culture is something more than skin deep’, he asserted. Foresythe referred to his childhood in Lagos, and according to the reporter spoke, ‘in a singularly cultured manner’.

Thus we can see the making of the man, musically speaking, as someone who came from a classical background, got into popular music as an easier means of making a living, and eventually came to appreciate black American culture and, with it, jazz, more as an outsider looking in than as a ‘member of the club,” so to speak. His interest in modern classical music, particularly the French composers who he admired above all others as well as those Russian modernists like Stravinsky who lived in Paris, was to have a profound effect on his mature style.

Foresythe 2After continuing his vaudeville tour with Richardson for a year, Foresythe was encouraged by his partner to move to America, where he was certain his future lay. Yet, oddly, he took the long way there, going first to Honolulu, Hawaii and then to California, arriving on January 31, 1930. He quickly found work as a pianist with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, who worked in the West Coast Kentucky Club—a band that included, believe it or not, drum and vibraphone virtuoso Lionel Hampton, trombonist Lawrence Brown and alto player Charlie Lawrence. This is where Foresythe finally realized his love for jazz and decided that this was where his future lay; he also met Duke Ellington for the first time here (Duke’s band was playing Hollywood that year, and left the West Coast after adding Brown to his trombone section). After a brief return to London later that year, where Foresythe accompanied Zaidee Jackson on several of her Parlophone recordings, he then went to Chicago where he worked as a “backroom boy” for Earl Hines’ Grand Terrace Orchestra, which is where he wrote Deep Forest for Earl. When the Hines band was booked into the all-white College Inn in Chicago, he as well as the band members were told that all “Negroes are required to eat in the kitchen.” Foresythe exploded. “How dare you call me a Negro? Must I show you my passport ? I am an Englishman, and I will go to the Embassy and cause you more trouble than you can stand.” As a result, he was the only band member allowed to eat in the restaurant. Foresythe also wrote the full band “book” for trumpeter Wild Bill Davison’s band and, when Ellington arrived to play the Lincoln Inn in Chicago, a few for him as well (including Cocktails for Two, which Ellington recorded).

Mississippi BasinLuckily for him, Foresythe also did some freelance work for Robbins Music and Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager. The latter was so impressed that he introduced him to lyricist Andy Razaf, who had already written some great lyrics for songs by Fats Waller, in late 1932. This was when he finally moved to New York and wrote Mississippi Basin, which was recorded in 1933 by Louis Armstrong, Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, and pop singer Chick Bullock. It was his first “hit.” His second was Serenade for a Wealthy Widow, for which the white songwriting team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote lyrics. Through Mills, Foresythe met Waller and attended the latter’s 28th birthday party in 1932, at which Waller played not only his own music but the full score of Stravinsky’s Petrushka at the keyboard. Foresythe then joined Waller at the keyboard for a four-hands arrangement of music from Frederick Delius’ opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet.

Duke InsistsForesythe stayed at Ellington’s Lenox Avenue apartment for an extended period of time, but by this time Reginald began his lifelong habit of drinking heavily. Between being beaten up for being caught in the homosexual New York clubs and being blotto in Duke’s apartment, he unfortunately became an unwelcome house guest, yet his star continued to rise. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, impressed by his talent, broadcast Foresythe’s Southern Holiday from a performance at the Biltmore Hotel with the composer at the piano in January 1933 and later recorded The Duke Insists, Serenade for a Wealthy Widow, Deep Forest, Dodging a Divorcee and what is perhaps Foresythe’s best-known tune, Garden of Weed—a piece whose title was sure to titillate the marijuana-smoking jazz musicians of the time just like Cab Calloway’s Kicking the Gong Around and Don Redman’s The Chant of the Weed. Now well connected in America, Foresythe longed to have his star also rise in his home country, so he went back to England at the end of March 1933.

Ironically, he worked primarily as an accompanist again until Melody Maker, the British jazz magazine, published a laudatory article on him. Henry Hall of the BBC invited him to broadcast his Southern Holiday with the station’s dance orchestra in May, and this established him as a major talent on the rise in his own country. After playing piano in a band led by cornetist Joe Smith, he was introduced to Bert Ambrose, who only used his last name professionally. Ambrose was deeply impressed by his forward-looking scores and backed Foresythe’s experimental band, which used no brass instruments but also included a bassoon and opened at the fairly new Café de la Paix which was more than open to presenting “exotic music.” This was how Reginald Foresythe and his New Music band came into being.

Foresythe orchestra

In a fascinating article published in the December 1933 issue of Tune Times, Foresythe explained his musical aesthetics. This is quoted in the Terry Brown article cited above, but it is worth republishing here:

We have undoubtedly arrived at the transition stage in jazz. Duke Ellington, on the one hand, and Paul Whiteman, on the other, have in my opinion, said the final word in what might be called the “harmonic” style of jazz – primitive music originally supplied with diatonic harmonies by obliging missionaries. Anything further will be merely repetition and as such can serve no useful purpose. But art is all enduring… the end of one phase merely marks the beginning of another. I believe that in the same manner that, Stravinsky went back first to the early Italian composers and then to Bach, so will jazz desert the harmonic basis for one purely contrapuntal. It was with this in mind that I formed the orchestra which is now playing at the Café de la Paix…suffice to say that the orchestra was formed after careful study of English taste, the size and acoustical properties of the restaurant itself, and last, but in no way least, present day economic conditions had to be taken into account. Quite a number of people, who have not heard the band, are under the impression that I wish to continue the so called, “symphonic tradition”, nothing could be further from my intentions. Symphonic jazz is quite tasteless to me, and I was very amused a short while ago when a well known critic and composer said he thought I was really a Gershwin at heart. The essence of all art lies in the extremist simplicity of expression. This is my aim… the omission of the obvious… the suppression of the superfluous… the most expression with the greatest economy of means. It may be that I am on the wrong track… perhaps it will even prove to be a cul-de-sac… I do not think so.

Angry JungleIn January 1934, Melody Maker published an interview with Foresythe by jazz critic Leonard Feather, then a young man and still living in London. Much to Feather’s surprise and shock, Foresythe came down a bit hard on Ellington (whom Feather greatly admired) because he allowed his musicians to play “too much jazz” in their performances. Quoth Foresythe, “That sort of spontaneous inspiration that he allows in practically every number gets rather dull after a while. If you ask me, this solo business is just a form of exhibitionism with no lasting value.”

Thus we can see that Foresythe was borrowing from jazz but not at all convinced of the musical quality of solo improvisation. This was clearly the well-trained classical academic in him coming out, and points to at least one reason why his musical aesthetics died out. Back in the USA in January 1935, he organized a “New Music” recording session using musicians from Benny Goodman’s then-still-struggling big band—Hymie Schertzer and Toots Mondello on alto saxes, Dick Clark on tenor sax, Gene Krupa on drums and Goodman himself on clarinet—along with bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, himself on piano and John Kirby on bass. Ironically, it was to be his last gasp with his New Music. In March 1935, Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra recorded his Southern Holiday, but from then on Foresythe, both as a bandleader and pianist, was pushed into playing more standard fare: La Cucaracha, Sidewalks of Cuba, Anything Goes, I Get a Kick Out of You, I Won’t Dance, Why Was I Born?, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, The Touch of Your Hand, Tea for Two, Sweet Georgia Brown, I’m in the Mood for Love, About a Quarter to Nine and Cheek to Cheek. There was one last flurry of revolt against standard fare in November 1936, when he managed to record Revolt of the Yes-Men, Meditation in Porcelain, Aubade and a particularly complex and modernistic piece, Carl-Olof Anderberg’s Burlesque, but that indeed was the end of the line for Foresythe’s progressive streak—and by then he was forced to use at least one trumpet in his band, upsetting the all-reed balance he had so carefully fought for.

One guesses that, by 1936, the novelty of Foresythe’s approach was wearing off, thanks in no small way to the explosive success that Benny Goodman had scored in August 1935 when he launched the Swing Era at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. His fight against the improvised jazz solo was now seen as hopelessly passé, not to mention unpopular. Swing was In, and Foresythe’s fascinating and experimental jazz-tinged tone poems were definitely out.

Despite being gay and an alcoholic, Foresythe was drafted into the Royal Air Force during World War II, where he pulled himself together and served with distinction. Unfortunately, the experience left him shattered emotionally and physically. Now drinking heavier than ever and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (well, we call it that now, but in 1946 it was just referred to as “war nerves”), he was never able to get his career back on track. With his queer little tone poems now not only passé but forgotten, he played solo piano and accompanied singers during the 1950s. He died, a broken man, a few days after Christmas 1958.

And thus did Reginald Foresythe pass almost unnoticed to the other side. But what of his music? Oddly enough, it retains its strange appeal, not least because—especially when he conducted or played it—it always had a melancholy feel to it, even when taken at a fairly brisk tempo. And although we also have the recordings of his music by Whiteman, Waller, Hines and Glen Gray, very few of the others’ performances capture the right feeling. Armstrong did so in Mississippi Basin, despite using his own arrangement and building it around his trumpet and voice, as did Ambrose in Lament for Congo and Lew Stone in Garden of Weed, the latter taken at a brisker clip than Foresythe’s own recording but still retaining its strange aura. As he himself said, his music is not so much harmonically complex as just built around a few melodic-harmonic cells, using a good amount of counterpoint and projecting a plaintive sound. Several of his best recordings are available for free streaming on YouTube; I encourage you to check them out; and during the 1980s, Willem Breuker’s Kollektief made a specialty of playing his Berceuse for an Unwanted Child, which you can also find on YouTube. They provide us with his legacy, such as it is: the work of an interesting and offbeat mind for whom jazz was an interest but never quite the central focus of his life and music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Mysterious Dodo Marmarosa

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DODO’S BOUNCE / MARMAROSA: Dodo’s Bounce. Opus #5. You Thrill Me. Compadoo. Bopmatism. Raindrops. Escape. KREISLER-LeBARON: I’m in Love. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover, Come Back to Me. KERN-HARBACH: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes / Dodo Marmarosa, pno; Barney Kessel, gtr; Gene Englund, bs / DeROSE-PARISH: Deep Purple. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. MARMAROSA: Tone Paintings I. Tone Paintings II / Marmarosa, pno / MARMAROSA: Bopmatism (2 tks). Dodo’s Dance (2 tks). Dary Departs (2 tks). Dodo’s Bounce. Dodo’s Lament. COOTS-GILLESPIE: You Go to My Head (listed as Trace Winds by Marmarosa, 2 tks). RODGERS-HART: Lover (listed as Cosmo Street by Marmarosa, 2 tks)/ Marmatosa, pno; Harry Babasin, cel/bs; Mills, dm / THOMPSON: Slam’s Mishap. Shuffle That Riff. Smooth Sailing. Commercial Eyes. MARMAROSA: Bopmatism, Dodo’s Dance. Trade Winds. Dary Departs. Cosmo Street / Marmarosa, pno; Lucky Thompson, t-sax; Red Callender, bs; Jackie Mills, dm / Fresh Sound Records FSCD-1019

The collection of rare 1946-47 recordings, released by Fresh Sound in 1991, adds considerably to our perception of a mysterious but obviously prodigious jazz talent who flourished in that decade, disappeared, came back briefly in the early 1960s and then apparently vanished from the face of the earth, though he continued to live until 2002 when he died in his native Pittsburgh at the age of 76.

If you look up photos of Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, you’ll find only one in which he is smiling. One. In all the others, he looks about as sad as a man who has lost everything he loved in life.

Marmarosa was born in Pittsburgh on December 12, 1925. As a child he couldn’t pronounce his first name, Michael, so his family called him a dodo. Somehow, against his will, the nickname stuck. When he left Pittsburgh at age 16, in 1942, he was a fully formed classical pianist and his family expected great things of him, but he was bitten by the jazz bug by hearing the music on the radio. After a few local appearances with Brad Hunt’s society orchestra and also with local guitarist Billy Yates, Marmarosa joined the band of Johnny “Scat” Davis. A few months later Gene Krupa hired him, but the leader was then busted on the first of a couple of marijuana possessions and the band broke up. Dodo, lead trumpeter Jimmy Pupa and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, all from the Davis band, stuck together as a trio. They were then picked up in rapid succession by Ted Fio Rito, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey, but it was with Barnet that he made his first important and notable recording, The Moose. Written by Ralph Burns, later a staff writer and arranger with Woody Herman’s First Herd, the original title of the piece was Dick Tracy Liquidates 88 Keys, but Barnet thought it too long. At this point, not having been around long enough for his nickname to stick in the professional world, Barnet nicknamed him “Moose” and so the record was titled The Moose.

After Barnet, he spent a year in Artie Shaw’s first band after his discharge from the Navy (starting in late 1944), mostly in the small group called the Gramercy Five, but then joined the avant-garde jazz band of Boys Raeburn where he made his second most influential record, Boyd Meets Stravinsky. His star was on the ascendant, but for some reason he kept a low profile. Perhaps his most notable recording session was the one in March 1946 of Ornithology, Night in Tunisia, Moose the Mooche (there’s that nickname of Moose again!) and Yardbird Suite with Charlie Parker. But Dodo kept a low profile. Despite the fact that jazz collectors began to seek out his records, the activity presented on this CD pretty much sums up the rest of his contributions during the ‘40s. He was hospitalized for illness from July 1946 through January 1947, returned to Pittsburgh in 1948 and just played local gigs, apparently unaware of his cult status among musicians and jazz fans.

What led to his disappearance from the jazz scene were two traumatic events that left deep psychological scars: his wife leaving him (also barring his being able to see his two daughters) and an Army induction in 1954. He was labeled as crazy, hospitalized, given shock treatments and then discharged three months later. According to an article by Steven Cerra posted on the Jazz Profiles page (https://jazzprofiles.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-mysterious-michael-marmarosa-aka.html), “Dodo became even more remote. He lived day-to-day, seeking no gigs on his own – jobs came because a friend would call him (especially Danny Conn). But he practiced continually, his entire world revolving around the piano. Full of self-doubts, he was unable to share his music – on some nights if you were there and heard him that was enough – no questions, no compliments, no requests, no encores. On other nights, he was very congenial. His family, first generation Italian, rejected any professional help, looking upon this as a stigma.”

But here he is in his prime, sounding wonderful, relaxed and swinging. His style was sort of a cross between two other innovative white jazz pianists of the 1940s, George Shearing and Lennie Tristano (who also disappeared for a while, but that was because he refused to go commercial and wanted to devote a decade to teaching). His playing here is not as busy or as complex as on The Moose or Boyd Meets Stravinsky, but excellent nonetheless. He also does not use as many extended or altered chord positions as did Shearing or Tristano, and in Deep Purple and Tea for Two he sounds surprisingly like one of his idols, Art Tatum (he told Cerra in 1995 that “I used to listen to all his records. I used to buy his records.” Unlike several other pianists I’ve heard try to “do” Art Tatum, Marmarosa actually gets the articulation and the rhythm exactly right. In Tone Paintings I and II, we hear Dodo the free jazz improviser, creating pieces that sound for all the world like updated versions of Bix Beiderbecke’s improvised piano piece of the 1920s, full of Debussy and Ravel-like harmonies, the second more swinging than the first. These are clearly remarkable recordings, and it’s a real shame that the original 78s were apparently pressed a bit off-center, so that there is some pitch wavering towards the end of each side. (Of course, Fresh Sound could have corrected this pretty easily by using a 78-rpm turntable with a removable center spindle—I had one once myself. You put the record on with the spindle, start the turntable up, then remove the spindle, eye the record from its edge to see where it sways and gently tap it the opposite direction of its outward “swing” with your index finger until the grooves appear to be more centered. It would have taken then all of a minute to correct but, like so many others, they were too lazy to do it.)

Fresh Sound mistakenly identifies the first five tracks that he plays with Harry Babasin and Jackie Mills to the session with Lucky Thompson and Red Callender, and then compounds the error by attributing the first six tracks with Thompson to the Babasin-Mills session. I should also point out that two pieces attributed to Marmarosa, Trace Winds and Cosmo Street, are actually the old standards You Go to My Head and Lover  (with no changes in either the melody or harmony). Dodo is in spectacular shape, sometimes spinning out right-handed runs with the insouciance of a Bud Powell. But Marmarosa was always very modest about his talents. In that 1995 interview, he particularly praised fellow-pianist Johnny Guarnieri for being able to play things he couldn’t, such as the amazing left-handed runs on his recording of Hallelujah. “I could never do that ’cause it takes time to get from here to there, and I thought how the hell does this guy do that? It always amazed me how he did that. It sounds reasonable, you know. You play the roots and then you have to play a chord. It takes time to get from here to there.” Yet some of his own playing could be equally dazzling, as can be heard here.

In addition to not correcting the “swinging copies,” Fresh Sound also retained most of the 78-rpm surface noise on these discs, but no matter. The music is marvelous.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Poul Ruders’ “The Thirteenth Child”

Ruders

RUDERS: The Thirteenth Child / Sara Shafer, sop (Princess Lyra); Tama Mumford, mezzo (Queen Gertrude); Ashraf Sewailam, bs-bar (Drokan); Matt Boehler, bs (King Hjarne); Alasdair Kent, ten (Prince Frederic/Toke); David Portillo, ten (Benjamin); Alex Rosen, bs (Corbin); Bridge Academy Singers; Odense Symphony Orch.; Benjamin Shwartz (Act 1) & David Starobin (Act 2), cond / Bridge 9527

This project was sort of a labor of love for Becky and David Starobin, the owners of Bridge Records, and composer Poul Ruders over the past decade. Being lovers of European fairy tales and frequent visitors to Odense, Denmark where Hans Christian Andersen was born, they decided to write an opera based on one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, The Twelve Brothers.

This tale concerns a king and queen who had 12 children, all boys. The king tells his queen, “If the thirteenth child you bring into the world is a girl, the boys will all die,” and has 12 coffins made in preparation for their demise but told the queen not to say a word to anyone. Nevertheless, she brooded about it until the youngest son, Benjamin, came and asked her why she was so sad. She refused to tell him but he pestered her so much that she unlocked the room, showed him the coffins and explained the reason behind it. Benjamin vowed to save them all and the queen suggested that they all go into the forest and keep watch over one another. After 11 days, when it was Benjamin’s turn to keep watch, he raised their family flag and discovered that it was no longer white but blood-red, indicating impending death. The brothers then decided to go deeper into the forest, where they found a little empty hut that they did not know was bewitched and decided to stay there, which they did for 10 years.

By this time the little girl, now 10 years old, discovered her brothers’ clothing and asked her mother about it. Learning the truth, she picked up the clothes and went into the forest; after walking a whole day, she arrived at the bewitched hut. Benjamin asked her who she was and she told him she was a princess seeking her 12 brothers; figuring out the truth, Benjamin embraced her as his sister but warned her that their code was that ‘every maiden we meet must die.” The princess agreed to die if it meant that her brothers would be saved. Benjamin then said that she will not die; he hid her and revealed her to his brothers when they came in for food, and they all agreed that she should live.

Well, if you know anything about Grimm fairy tales, you know that most of them have dark and evil elements in which the participants come to no good. In this case, the sister decides to pick 12 lilies and present them to her brothers, but as soon as she does the princes are changed into ravens and fly away; the enchanted hut then disappears. An old woman then accosts her and explains that the lilies she picked were her brothers’ souls, and now that they are ravens they cannot be changed back. Of course, the woman says, there is one way to save them, and that is by being completely silent for seven years. At this point, I was reminded of another Grimm tale where the brothers were changed into swans and the princess had to knit them cloaks while remaining silent and toss them over them, but one of the princes was lacking one arm in his cloak and so had a swan wing for the rest of his life.

And by golly, wouldn’t you know it, but this story has a similar ending. In this operatic version, the old woman who appears to the princess, here named Lyra, is the ghost of her dead mother, and the good King Hjarne has a nemesis in his evil cousin, King Drokan, who also warns him that his sons will try to kill Hjarne and usurp his throne, and whose son Frederic later becomes betrothed to Lyra. The entire episode of the brothers going into the woods is omitted, and here Lyra apparently only goes into the woods seeking her brothers when she is 18 years old, not 10. Though she refuses to speak, a great wedding is planned, but Drokan grabs Lyra and demands that she marry him instead. When she refuses, he lashes her to a bonfire but, as he lights it, Frederic and his soldiers return and the 12 ravens swoop down, forcing Droken into the fire. Suddenly the lilies burst into bloom and the brothers return to human form. In the battle, however, Benjamin is mortally wounded, his body now half-raven and half-human (see? I told ya so!). Frederic rescues Lyra from the fire, but poor Benny dies anyway.

Considering this is based on a fairy tale, one would automatically think that the opera was written for children, but such is clearly not the case. Both composer Ruders and his librettists have clearly chosen to go the route of Gothic drama, bringing out the dark side of the Grimm brothers’ tale and making this an opera for adults. From the very beginning, the music grips one with its dark, tragic tone. There are clearly lyrical passages for the singers and, in fact, the vocal music is gratefully written for voices, yet in the end the music sounds like a cross between Szymanowski’s Król Roger and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Which, of course, is right up my alley. I thrive on opera of this type because it is interesting and challenging. Yet I foresee problems finding an appropriate audience in the opera houses, where 90% of attendees want their operas—especially if based on fairy tales—to be light, tuneful and full of arias and high notes, none of which Ruders provides. And, conversely, the kind of audience that would gravitate to this music may not take the subject matter very seriously. Granted, there are folk legend elements in both Król Roger and Bluebeard’s Castle, not to mention Parsifal and Gluck’s Armide, but the basic core of these stories do not hinge solely on the fantastic. The Thirteenth Child is a fairy tale that has no dramatic context outside the limits of the story. It is what it is.

With that being said, both the music and its performance are excellent. Both Matt Boehler as Hjarne and Ashraf Sewailam, as Drokan, have a bit of a flutter in their voices, but thankfully neither is serious or really a wobble. Their duet at the beginning of the opera includes some really serious low notes for the former, which he hits on pitch with the sonority of a Russian bass. Brief as it is (he is dead by Scene 2), the role of Hjarne is a real voice-killer, demanding the bass sing very high up in the baritone range in addition to going down into Zarastro-like depths. Mezzo Tamara Mumford, as Queen Gertrude, sings especially well and has good diction. Towards the end of the first scene, Ruders tries to lighten the mood a bit in the vocal line, but the orchestral accompaniment is still rather dark and Bluebeard-like. Also like Bartók’s opera, the music develops in an almost symphonic manner—another big plus in its favor. Alasdair Kent, as Frederic, has a lovely light high tenor voice, similar to that of Michael Schade, and Sara Shafer, as Princess Lyra, has a pure, almost virginal-sounding timbre. Both, too, have good diction, always a plus.

In the second scene Ruders creates an extremely interesting effect behind the solo singers by using short, staccato choral interjections, almost like bell tones, and the orchestra eventually mimics them. The second interlude suddenly increases the tempo of the music and links scenes II and III with a piece that sounds like a somewhat demonic scherzo. Ruders consistently uses the orchestra in small sections, sometimes combining strings and brass, brass and winds, etc., always tastefully and creating interesting textures without ever overwhelming the vocal line. In this respect he is quite different from Bartók, whose orchestra swells and throbs in almost Mahler-like proportions during Bluebeard’s Castle. Lyra even gets two arias of sorts (no memorable tunes, no extraneous high notes, they sound more like the modern equivalents of Gluck arias) at the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. Thus the focus on Lyra as the opera’s central character increases her importance, but by and large she isn’t a very interesting character psychologically. Her sung monologues center around her feelings for her mother in the first and how her search goes on and no one loves her in her grief. The second interlude, which takes place after the ghost of Gertrude appears to Lyra, is equally dramatic with both orchestral and choral passages.

One of the more interesting aspects of this recording is that the opera’s two acts are directed by two different conductors, Benjamin Shwartz and David Starobin. Shwartz’ conducting is more gripping and dramatic while Starobin’s is more lyrical and flowing.

Despite my misgivings about the subject and its very advanced (and non-“commercial”) musical treatment, this is a fascinating work that bears repeated listening. One can only hope that an audience adult enough to appreciate its musical sophistication without being too hard on the fairy-tale plot can be found, and nurture it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Noé Tavelli & the Argonauts Collective’s New CD

DMCHR71359 - cover

TAVELLI: Rudy’s Blessing. Blanc comme Neige. Interlude 1. Improvisation. Byway. Interlude 2. Rush. Interlude 3. GEMINIANI: Giasone. Moods / Noé Tavelli, dm/ldr; Matthias Spillman, tpt/fl-hn; Francesco Geminiani, t-sax; Fabien Iannone, bs / Double Moon DMCHR71359

From the publicity for this CD:

Founded in 2016 by Swiss drummer Noé Tavelli, Noe Tavelli and The Argonauts Collective is an ensemble that brings together young European jazz musicians. Their music, which is collectively shaped and written, is fed by the influence of the New York Jazz scene, as each member of the band has spent extended time in the “Big Apple.” The band, a chord-less quartet, offers an ambitious blend of traditional and modern jazz combining both complex form and freedom. Marcel Papaux wrote of the present release: “Beautiful enchanting music, steeped in tradition and delivered by musicians in perfect symbiosis.”

The one thing I did not particularly like about some of their music is that it is based on rock music, but for the most part this comes from Tavelli’s drums and does not permeate the entire quartet. Both horns and the bassist play in a sort of advanced-cool-school style, similar to some of Miles Davis’ late-1950s/early-to-mid 1960s groups, and they are very good in their ability to create interesting improvisations that are original despite their obvious influence. Geminiani, in particular, avoids trying to copy John Coltrane, for instance, playing more in a Sonny Rollins style, and I was impressed by their ability to move the harmony around, subtly and sometimes quickly shifting the underlying chord progressions, using only a bass.

Since I was not provided download links for this recording, I had to review it via streaming audio on YouTube, where the tunes are presented out of sequence. On YouTube, Blanc comme Neige comes up first, a slow, somewhat melancholy piece with an attractive if somewhat intangible melody line. This is followed by the opening track, Rudy’s Blessing, which is only slightly quicker in pace. At times their harmonic progression comes close to the kind of things that the original Ornette Coleman Quartet was doing in 1959-60, but for the most part their music has a tonal bias with excursions into chromatic or modal harmonic movement, not the other way around. In Rudy’s Blessing, Tavelli fractions the time for long stretches of time while the horns and bass keep a stricter tempo, and at the 3:12 mark he introduces particularly complex rhythms.

Improvisation is even slower than the other two pieces, and here all members of the group play with rhythm in a fluid manner. Bass and drums open this track, leading to an extended solo by flugelhorn player Matthias Spillman before Geminiani’s tenor sax enters as a sort of harmonic foil for him, playing whole and half notes underneath that advance the harmonic fluidity of the music. When the saxist takes over for his solo, he leaps into the upper range of his instrument but does not stay there long; rather, he backs off to allow Iannone to play a bass solo that fades out as the track closes.

Moods, another slow piece, begins with trumpet and tenor sax playing in harmony before moving into the unusual melody in 3/4. First the sax plays slow quarter notes while the trumpet plays, then they reverse roles. Eventually the tempo appears to shift from 3 to 4, or possibly something more complex (they don’t keep strict time anyway) as the bass and drums become more active behind them. Harmonically, however, this one is a bit more conventional. Rush, the only uptempo piece on this disc (and medium uptempo at that) is a welcome relief from their usual patterns, with Spillman’s somewhat ebullient trumpet predominating.

Indeed, without going into detail on every track in this album—the moods and patterns have a certain sameness to them, anyway—I was struck by the rather melancholy mood of almost the entire disc. This is not “ambient jazz” by any means; they play real jazz, and are obviously dedicated to their particular style; but taken as a whole, the album is certainly designed to create a feeling of what I would characterize as relaxed sadness.

If this is your cup of tea, you will revel in this album. If not, I recommend not listening to it when you’re feeling down. Mind you, the music is indeed creative, but there is no joy in this music, only slow-moving figures and improvisations.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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