Hans Gál’s Viola Music

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GÁL: Suite Concertante for Viola & Orchestra.4 Divertimento for Violin & Viola.1 Sonata for Viola & Piano.2 Trio for Oboe, Violin & Viola1,3 / Hanna Pakkala, vla; 1Reijo Tunkkari, vln; 2Irina Zahharenkova, pno; 3Takuya Takashima, ob; 4Ostrobothnian Chamber Orch., Sakari Oramo, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0535

Hans Gál (1890-1987) wrote extensively for the viola, thus this is Vol. 1 in a projected series of albums dedicated to his scores for that instrument. Three of the works here date from the 1940s whereas the Divertimento dates from 1969.

Viennese-born, Gál held a position as head of the Musikhochschule in Mainz but was immediately dismissed from his post when the Nazis assumed power in 1933. He returned to his native country but again had to leave in March 1938 after the Nazis invaded Austria. Living in England, he had a hard time finding work despite the enthusiastic support of Sir Donald Tovey, largely because it was stamped in refugees’ passports that they were forbidden to do either paid or unpaid work in the U.K. He finally landed a post teaching at the University of Edinburgh in 1945, from which point on he was a highly respected teacher and author. But Gál, by his own admission, was never one to promote his own cause. A quiet, almost shy man, Gál admitted that he was “much too passive to do anything.”

Gál’s music was primarily late-Romantic in style but informed by the harmonic daring of composers of the 1920s. His Suite Concertante opens with a long viola solo, very melodic and written in long lines, after which the oboe, clarinet and French horn interject a few notes as the music continues, underscored by pizzicato celli and basses. At 2:30 in the first movement there is also a lovely duet for viola and violin. Generally speaking, Gál’s music was similar to that of Alexandre Tansman. The second movement, “Furioso,” is highly rhythmic in an almost neo-classic style, but again with lyrical melodic lines for the solo viola. In the third movement, “Con grazia,” Gál shows a penchant for very clever and subtle key changes within a phrase.

The 1969 Divertimento shows a slightly more modern Gál, writing an elaborate string duet with some influences of post-World War II music but still essentially lyrical. The viola-piano sonata from 1942 is very Straussian in style; the second movement is a waltz, albeit one with slightly quirky harmonic shifts within each bar.

I liked the trio for oboe, violin and viola for its pastoral sound. Gál interweaves the instruments skillfully, but the music itself is not particularly adventurous.

Hans Gál is a perfect example of why I bristle when performers include people like him in their surveys of “Entrarte Musik.” He was a fine, decent, solid composer of pleasant music that certainly has its place now and then in the repertoire, but there’s nothing particularly special, unique or personal about it. For all its fine craft, it is relatively “faceless.” It’s certainly not poorly written, but it’s so formulaic that it could have been written by anybody who was trained during his time. Had Gál been purely Aryan, Hitler would probably have put him on a pedestal and held him up as an example of what good music sounded like compared to that degenerate Hindemith, who was pure Aryan (but who left Germany anyway because he hated the Nazis). Still, it’s worth hearing at least once because it shows how you can write Strauss-like melodic lines with constantly shifting harmonies in a more modern style. Gál was undoubtedly an excellent composition teacher; he knew what he was doing; but a genius he wasn’t.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Michell-Menuhin “Compassion Project” Reissued

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WP 2019 - 2THE COMPASSION PROJECT / TAVERNER: Song of the Angel / Ulf Hoelscher, vln; Susan Narucki, sop; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orch. (CPCO); Lukas Foss, cond / RAN: Yearning Edna Michell, vln; Michal Kaňka, cel; CPCO; Foss, cond / YI: Romance of Hslao and Ch’in / Hoelscher, Machum Erlich, vln; Karlsruhe Ensemble; Andreas Weiss, cond / HENZE: Adagio adagio / Michell, vln; Kaňka, cel; Igor Ardašev, pno / LEEF: T’Filah. KURTÁG: Ligatura / Michell, Hoelscher, Erlich, vln / RUDERS: Credo / Shlomo Mintz, Hoelscher, vln; Ludmila Peterková, cl; CPCO; Foss, cond / SATOH: Innocence / FOSS: Romance / Patricia Rozario, sop; Michell, vln; CPCO; Foss, cond / RIHM: Cantilena / Michell, vln / XENAKIS: Hunem-Iduhey / Michell, vln; Kaňka, cel / HUSA: Stèle / Michell, vln / B. OLIVERO: Achòt Ketana / Michell, Hoelscher, Bohuslav Matoušek, vln; Rozario, sop; CPCO; Foss, cond / GLASS: Echorus / Michell, Hoelscher, vln; Allen Ginsberg, narr; CPCO; Foss, cond / REICH: Duet / Michell, Hoelscher, vln; Karlsruhe Ens.; Weiss, cond / SAARIAHO: Changing Light / Luyba Petrova, sop; Michell, vln / EBEN-KORTE-KALABIS: 3 Frescoes From the Old Testament / Michell, vln; Frank Glazer, pno / BERIO: Glossa / David Schifrin, cl; Ettore Causa, vla / TISHCHENKO: Wild Honey Smells of Freedom / Petrova, sop; Michell, vln; Ole Akahoshi, cel / HICKEY: Lunula / Tara Helen O’Connor, fl; Claire Brazeau, E-hn / TAL: Piano Quartet / Cantilena Piano Qrt / BANSHCHIKOV: Elegy / Michell, vln; Akahoshi, cel / FOSS: Round a Common Center / Yehudi Menuhin, vln; Cantilena Piano Qrt; Elaine Bonazzi, mezzo; Orson Welles, narr / Innova 971

The genesis of this album is explained in the liner notes by violinist Edna Michell:

In 1993, following recording sessions in the Czech Republic, Yehudi Menuhin and I were on the way to Vienna to catch flights to different destinations. Menuhin was despairing about the atrocities of the world. To change the mood, I came up with the idea of composers from around the world writing short works inspired by the theme of compassion. It struck a chord with Menuhin, and he remained immersed in the proj­ect for the rest of his life.

Menuhin and I were involved in many projects together over many years, but his fo­cus on this one was astonishing. I was amazed to see Menuhin’s enthusiasm, involve­ment, excitement, dedication, and commitment expressed in the many handwritten faxes and letters he sent to people around the world. Menuhin would call me from wherever he was in the world at 3 AM New York time and would exclaim, “I just had an idea and wanted to tell you about it…” The more the project developed, the more he wanted to carry on with it. His fervor to see this project fulfilled was inspirational.

Of course, atrocities in the world are nothing new; they’ve been around for millennia, and aren’t going to go away any time soon no matter how many concerts are dedicated to compassion. But it made Menuhin in particular feel good about it, perhaps in part because he hadn’t done anything to address the atrocities of the Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes of the 1930s through the 1950s.

In the end, however, it is the music that either stands or falls on its own merit, and for the most part Menuhin and Michell chose their composers and their pieces wisely. Being much older and not always in the best of health—the 1990s was the only time I had the chance to hear Menuhin perform live, and he was so sick that he refused to receive visitors in the green room after the concert—it was largely due to the unflagging energy of Michell that this whole project came together at last. The first session was recorded in 1994 (the Eben, Korte and Kalabis pieces) while most of the album was made in the 21st century, after Menuhin’s death: the Berio and Hickey pieces, in fact, were made in May 2016, so in a sense some of this album is new. The only track featuring Menuhin on violin was actually recorded before the project began, in 1982.

John Taverner’s Song of the Angel is that rarity, a slow, tonal piece that avoids sounding tacky or sentimental. Violinist Ulf Hoelscher and soprano Susan Narucki are the stars here; indeed, one will find Hoelscher on several tracks in this collection. To a certain extent, however, it is Narucki’s smoldering, sexless yet impassioned singing that “makes” this track work. She, too, manages to sound sweet and lyrical but not cloying.

Shulamit Ran’s Yearning is based on a tale from the Dybbuk in which Khonnon yearns for his beloved Leya but dies when his love is not returned. Michell is the violin soloist in this one, with cellist Michal Kaňka playing countermelodies beneath her. In both of these first two works, the orchestral parts are generally quiet, scored for low instruments (basses and celli in this one) and meant to create a background mood to whatever the soloists are doing. The violin part, and to a lesser extent the orchestra, becomes more agitated in the middle section. The music is excellent.

Chen Yi’s Romance of Hslao and Ch’in is that rarity, a piece by a Chinese composer that actually sounds Chinese and not like Western Romantic music—though the middle section is clearly developed along Western lines. Yi states that he tried to reproduce the sound of Chinese instruments through Western ones: the hslao, a vertical bamboo flute, and the ch’in, an ancient seven-string zither. Interestingly, the orchestral part here is more complex and prominent than in the first two works by Western composers.

Henze’s Adagio adagio is described as a Serenade for Piano Trio, and quite a lovely one it is without sacrificing Henze’s excellent grasp of form and subtle use of modern harmonies. Fortuitously, Henze composed it in 1993 as a birthday gift for an old friend and received its first performance that year played by Menuhin with two colleagues in Darmstadt, Germany, so into the Compassion Project it went. Michell, Kaňka and pianist Igor Ardašev play it with wonderful feeling. This is followed by one of the strangest pieces on the album, Yinam Leef’s T’Filah, the Hebrew word for prayer, described in the notes as a piece in which “each one of the three violins keeps its own personal voice, sometimes while sharing the material with the others, or when allowing one of them to take a leading role, not unlike a Chazan.” Michell and Hoelscher are both on this track, joined by Machum Erlich. I don’t know which violinist is playing which part, but they certainly do complement each other.

Next up is Poul Ruders’ Credo, another slow piece in a meditative mood that is not cloying. Here the well-known violinist Shlomo Mintz joins Hoelscher and clarinetist Ludmila Peterková in an impassioned prayer for peace that rises in both a scalar and chromatic fashion to almost hysterical heights, backed by the cellos and basses of the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (CPCO) conducted by Lukas Foss. Somei Satoh’s Innocence is in the same vein but uses different harmonies and melodic lines; Michell’’s violin acts here more as a sort of obbligato instrument to the high winds of the orchestra while soprano Patricia Rozario sings sweetly with a pure, vibratoless tone. This is followed by yet another slow piece, Wolfgang Rihm’s Cantilena, written in 2000 and played by Michell alone. It moves at almost a snail’s pace, yet holds the listener’s interest because the notes are so well chosen.

Hunem-Iduhey, which means “non-vibrato,” was written by Iannis Xenakis in 1996. This is the edgiest piece on the album so far and the furthest removed from any concept of “compassion”; indeed, Xenakis himself states that he is someone who just does things and doesn’t try to analyze them too much. Like much of his music, it’s very atonal in an abrasive manner, which is then offset by Lukas Foss’ Romance. Rozario is again the soprano soloist. Karel Husa’s Stèle is a meditation for solo violin, played superbly by Michell.

Indeed, as one listens to the entire album, one feels the urge for humanitarianism without either the music or the words (when there are any) being preachy or maudlin, and that in itself is a rare experience nowadays. Betty Olivero’s Achòt Ketana (In Memoriam) brings soprano Rozario back to join a trio of violinists and the CPCO playing in am impassioned manner behind them. György Kurtág’s Ligatura for two violins was written in 1998 as an 80th birthday present for Menuhin, and is thus one of the few “compassion-less” pieces on the album, yet it fits in due to its slow movement and generally calm demeanor despite the continually abrasive harmonies.

You don’t even have to look at the composers’ list to know that Echorus was written by Philip Glass: his repetitive minimalist style is both unmistakable and predictable, though here it is relieved somewhat by Allen Ginsberg reciting one of his poems, Wales Visitation. Although Steve Reich is also a minimalist composer, in fact older than Glass and one of his influences, his music has more rhythmic motion and counter-motion and is thus more interesting. The Duet for two violins and string orchestra is a fine example of his work.

The second CD begins with Kaija Saariaho’s Changing Light and, although I feel that most of her music is comprised primarily of effects, this short piece is effective because of its light, transparent texture and its brevity. Luyba Petrova is the soprano soloist, and she has a superb voice including a trill which she puts to the service of the music. If Saariaho’s recent opera were written in a compact a form as this, I’d certainly have liked it much better than I did. Michell plays the violin obbligato. Following this is a rare collaboration between three composers—Petr Eben, Oldrich Korte and Viktor Kalabis—who wrote 3 Frescoes from the Old Testament. The first of these is a surprisingly edgy piece for violin and piano, played with appropriate angst by Michell and Frank Glazer. The notes tell us that these three Czech composers were contacted to contribute something to the Compassion Project, and each, without the knowledge of the others, chose themes from the Old Testament. Zuzana Ružicková, Kalabis’ widow, expressed surprise that the works of these three composers, “each with a highly individual style, resulted in a unique and coherent work of great inspiration, expression and human com­passion.” Following Eben’s piece we hear Korte’s, which is more lyrical than Eben’s (and settles into a regular 3/4 rhythm) but no less passionate and strong in its emotions. The Kalabis piece is the most intense of the three and, as Ružicková stated, provides a surprising complement to the preceding two works.

Luciano Berio’s Glossa for clarinet and viola is another odd piece, being considerably louder and edgier than any of the music preceding it. This was recorded in May 2016, so it’s another late addition to the set. So too is Boris Tischenko’s Wild Honey Smells of Freedom, recorded in 2010, with Petrova making a return appearance as vocalist. Set to a poem by Anna Akhmatova, it is sung in Russian.

We return to calmer music with Sean Hickey’s Lunula, written for flute and English horn and played superbly by the wonderful flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, whose superb album The Way Things Go I raved about in March 2016 on this blog. This is another track from May 2016. We then break, I would say, almost completely away from the concept of music representing compassion with Josef Tal’s Piano Quartet. This is an edgy atonal work which requires great powers of concentration to follow and certainly extra-human skill to perform. I should point out that violinist Michell and pianist Frank Glazer are both members of the Cantilena Piano Quartet. Oddly enough, this track was one of the earliest made for this project, in 1993 at the Jerusalem Music Center. One of the keys to its success is Michell’s soaring, impassioned violin playing, which gets a brief solo or two within its 10-and-a-half-minute span. As I’ve said many times before, there’s good atonal music and bad atonal music; Tal’s quartet is masterful, to my ears, because it says something and develops cogently rather than just spitting out harmonically edgy ideas. Cellist Steven Thomas also gets a brief solo passage, but by and large it is pianist Glazer who “drives” this quartet with his powerful chunky chords and occasional running bass lines.

Gennady Banshchikov’s Elegy for violin and cello, written in 2004 in memory of Yehudi Menuhin, is a lyrical piece that again does not wallow in bathos, played superbly by Michell and cellist Ole Akahoski. Banshchikov cleverly gives the cello slow rhythmic figures that propel the music ever so gently, with the violin playing above it, occasionally having them play opposing lines with the cello using longer notes than the violin. At the 4:12 mark, the music suddenly becomes edgier for a few bars before receding back to its lyrical state.

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The program concludes with the one Menuhin recording, Lukas Foss’ Round a Common Center, written for the 1980 Olympics. The text, recited by Orson Welles, is a bit on the pretentious side, but the music is excellent. The vocalist here, singing wordlessly, is mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi, a mainstay on the New York music scene for decades. I saw her in person once; she had an excellent voice, but made the most alarming faces when singing that I dubbed her “the mask of tragedy.” Welles’ narration sounds a bit hammy, not unlike his TV ads: “We will sell no wine before its time!” It’s an interesting slice of history although, to be honest, Menuhin’s lines in the opening section are not particularly distinguished ones. He does not come into his own until the 5:10 mark, when his part becomes more complex, suddenly intertwining with cellist Marcy Rozen (Steven Thomas’ predecessor) of the Cantilena Piano Quartet. This is the section of the music meant to represent Olympic athletes in action, and it’s very well written. Bonazzi even gets a few notes here and there, probably because Foss remembered that she would be in the room at the time.

I can’t think of another album of contemporary music I’ve enjoyed this much in recent years with the exceptions of Outi Tarkiainen’s and Dimitri Tymoczko’s CDs. Every piece is interesting, well written and well played. My attention never flagged for a moment throughout the entire two CDs, running more than two hours, and that’s saying a lot. Heartily recommended. I urge you to get this set!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jenkinson & Farr Play Cello Sonatas

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L. ROSE: Cello Sonata. SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata. The Gadfly: Prelude and Romance (Youth)* / Katherine Jenkinson, cel; *Nicholas Holland, cel; Alison Farr, pno / Stone Records 5060192780895

Everyone knows the name of Dmitri Shostakovich, even those who don’t particularly like his music, but I doubt that more than a few hundred classical buffs know who Lawrence Rose is. A British violinist born in 1943, Rose developed a passion for composing but pursued neither career, opting instead for a career in law, which he didn’t leave until 2001 at the age of 58. His sonata for cello and piano was completed in 2015 and dedicated to the artists who play it here.

Rose’s sonata is written in what I call “accepted modern edgy style,” full of dissonances from the very first note and playing on dissonance throughout. This is not to say that the music is vapid or uninteresting; on the contrary, it is full of interesting ideas, and Katherine Jenkinson has a full, rich tone and dazzling technique that do it full justice. The point I am making is that the music does not have a personal style, but is, rather, following a generic trend in the modern classical world. With that being said, Rose stops the music at about the 2:30 mark in the first movement to produce an almost neo-Romantic theme which is then developed for some time before a return to the edgy music at the five-minute mark. Rose likes to build his music stepwise in rising patterns. I particularly liked the second movement with its insistent march rhythm, allied to rising and falling chromatic passages. All in all, it’s a very clever piece that has its attractions; it’s just not particularly distinctive in style. The slow movement is moody and affecting without being cloying, and I really appreciated this aspect of Rose’s score, but the last movement, which is also slow until a minute before the end, is too episodic.

The Shostakovich sonata is a famous piece, and the Jenkinson-Farr duo plays it very well, but although it was recorded at the same location as the Rose sonata (All Saints’ Church, Orpington, Kent in the UK), the sonics are completely different. Whereas the Rose sonata is recorded with a good, warm, close microphone placement, the mics were obviously pulled back quite a bit for the Shostakovich piece, giving both instruments (but especially the cello) too much reverb to swim around in. This is particularly detrimental in the slow third movement, the beginning of which was barely audible through my speakers because it was too distantly recorded. Nonetheless, the performance is a very fine one when you can actually hear it. Jenkinson plays with a great deal of nuance without sounding coy or sentimental.

As a bonus, we get two movements from Shostakovich’s 1955 Gadfly Suite, the “Prelude” and “Romance,” which are played with a great deal of heart by Jenkinson. These, too, are recorded at a distance, and feature Nicholas Holland as second cellist. The music is more Romantic in both harmony and style than one is used to from Shostakovich.

Good performances all round, then, with good sonics in the Rose sonata and overly tubby sound in the Shostakovich pieces.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Winterberg’s Piano Music

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WINTERBERG: Sonata II. 4 Intermezzi. Suite Theresienstadt. Piano Suite. 7 Neo-Impressionist Pieces in 12-Tone / Brigitte Helbig, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0531

Having already reviewed and enjoyed Hans Winterberg’s chamber works, I felt the need to hear his piano music. And thank goodness, not only is the music good but so is the pianist. Brigitte Helbig is not one of these drippy Romantic musicians who turn Villa-Lobos, for instance, into Chopin. She plays with fire and a strong attack, which suits Winterberg’s scores just fine.

The Sonata II is typical of his music: bitonal but not so outré as to scare away all conservative listeners, though of course you’ll never hear this music played on your local classical radio station. It’s too edgy for that. The best way one could characterize this piece would be to call it Czech Bartók, but even that wouldn’t do it justice. The music has strong rhythms and follows standard lines of development, but the bitonality is a constant. Not to put too fine a pin on it, but Winterberg seemed to be one of those rare composers who actually thought in bitonal terms rather than simply using bitonality as a gimmick to draw attention, if you know what I mean. Listen, for instance, to the second movement, which has a repeating bass line played in D minor against right-hand figures in Ab minor using whole tones. In the third movement, “Molto vivace,” he combined bitonality with driving motor rhythms, almost like Stravinsky.

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Brigitte Helbig

The Intermezzi are lighter, airier pieces in bitonal mode with a lot of space between phrases which adds to their piquancy—at least, until you reach No. 4, titled “Wild, heftig.” This one has pounding rhythms interspersed with its delicate moments, as if Winterberg was purposely being schizophrenic in his musical personality. Once again, Helbig plays this music with great insight to its structure as well as the proper touch.

The Suite Theresienstadt opens with a very formal (but equally bitonal) “Praeludium” which sounds like Bach playing in two different keys—and tempos, since it switches back and forth between 2/4 and 3/4. Truthfully, however, the “Intermezzo” is also very formally written. Winterberg was lucky to not have been sent to the Nazi internment camp until January 1945, from which point on the Third Reich was in serious trouble and had little time to spend killing Jews, thus Winterberg and his fellow inmates luckily escaped execution. The piece is more thoughtful and reflective than violent or angst-filled, but a good piece it most certainly is. The “Postludium” is filled with rapid, somewhat repeating double-time figures played against each other in the two hands of the pianist, a far trickier piece to play than one might think at first hearing. Only at the very end, where the pianist slams out high, repeated F major chords, does one feel the mood of finality…although for Winterberg, it might have signaled a triumph over death.

Praeludium

The Praeludium from Winterberg’s “Suite Theresienstadt”

Interestingly the Piano Suite, dating from a decade later, has some of the same qualities, but here they are a bit tamer and more formal than in the Suite Theresienstadt. The brief (2:15) “Passacaglia” sounds almost whimsical, far less serious than the passacaglias of Bach or Brahms. Even the “Marsch,” though adhering strictly to a march rhythm and not really whimsical in form, sounds lighter in mood than the similar pieces of, say, Erwin Schulhoff or Stefan Wolpe. The fourth movement, “Bucolica,” sounds whimsical in a wistful sort of manner, not really “bucolic” as one might imagine it would be. Truthfully, the final “Toccata” is the most bucolic piece in the entire suite, a nice bitonal romp with more shifting tempos.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating and complex music here are the 7 Neo-Impressionist Pieces in 12-Tone, written when Winterberg was 72 years old (1973). These combined the aesthetics of Ravel with chromatic movement in a wholly unique and individual manner, yet they do not use a strict 12-tone row. Rather, as Gerold Gruber points out in the liner notes, “It appears to be based on the use of the chromatic scale with diverse variations. In other words, he resorts to each tone being of equal hierarchic value in the manner of Schönberg’s tone-rows. Nor does Winterberg appear to use alternative twelve-tone techniques such as the one developed by Joseph Matthias Hauer.” Yet none of this detracts from the fascination of the piece; in the first movement, “Very fast and gently flowing,” he uses the unusual time signature of 6/16. and in the third piece, “Sehr bewegt,” he pits 3 against 4 except for brief passages of 2 against 3. But it takes a very highly tuned ear to catch all of this without looking at the score; to the average listener, it seems to be moving in 4 most of the time with brief moments of quicker tempi in a different rhythm. Annotator Michael Haas describes most of these pieces as “kaleidoscopic” in nature, and indeed they are.

With the exception of the Suite Theresienstadt, all of these works receive their first recordings here. I must applaud Brigitte Helbig for her brilliant and often exciting interpretations as well as Toccata Classics for having the foresight to release this disc. Bravos all around!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Miguel Zenón Plays the Music of Ismael Rivera

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SONERO / MELLO-DO BRITO-FIGUEROA: Intro/Maelo a Cappella. J. HERNÁNDEZ: Quitate de la Via, Perico. CAPÓ: Las Tumbas. El Negro Bambón. PLATA: La Gata Montesa. J. VASQUEZ: Traigo Salsa. Alonso: Las Caras Lindas. TORRES: Hola. H. ARROYO: Colobó. REYNA: Si te Contara. H. WILLIAMS: El Nazareno / Miguel Zenón Quartet: Zenón, a-sax; Luis Perdomo, pno; Hans Glawischnig, bs; Henry Cole, dm / Miel Music, no number

This CD, due for release a few days from now (August 30), is saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s tribute to Ismael “Maelo” Rivera (1931-1987), a legendary singer of Latin salsa. As Zenón puts it in the press release, ““He wasn’t just one of the guys. For me, he was beyond that. He exemplified the highest level of artistry. He was like Bird, Mozart, Einstein, Ali – he was that guy. Putting phrases on top of phrases, like threes over fours, stuff that’s so advanced that as a musician you can say, ‘okay, that’s five, then the four, then it crosses over and meets here’ – but I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about that,” Zenón says. “He was just thinking about the way he felt it. But what he felt was so advanced and so ahead of his time that it was really transcendent. So a lot of the elements that I used to write these charts were things that were inspired by what he was doing rhythmically when he improvised.”

FYI, that is Rivera’s likeness on the album cover, not Zenón’s. This is an album of tunes that Rivera apparently played. Again, according to the press release:

While the Maelo pieces included in Sonero are Zenón’s arrangements of other composers’ tunes, they’re so fully elaborated into large-scale works that they feel like his compositions. Listeners may recall his arrangement of Maelo’s signature Bobby-Capó-composed soliloquy “Incomprendido” that lit up the quartet’s groundbreaking Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (2011), an album which correctly treated standards by Puerto Rico’s greatest popular composers as part of the jazz repertoire. Sonero brings a similar approach, featuring versions of tunes by some of the same canonical composers from the repertoire of Ismael Rivera.

Of course, the proof these words is in the playing and the music, and it is indeed quite good, avoiding the trap of so much Latin music to fall into the same basic tempi and grooves. Zenón’s little group also avoids cliché by the strength of his arrangements—just listen to the wonderful pace and shaping of Juan Hernández’ Quitate de la Via, Perico with its shifting time signatures and a rhythm that sounds more like blues-bop than like salsa music. And Zenón is a terrific improviser, one who pays close attention to the structure of his solos. He says something every time he plays his horn; he doesn’t just blow a string of notes to impress the less sophisticated listener. Even when he goes “outside,” he is building a complex structure. At the 4:28 mark there is a sudden release of tension, the band moves into a swinging 4 and pianist Luis Perdomo fills the air with a shower of notes in an excellent solo. I did, however, feel that Henry Cole overplayed his drums on this track.

Las Tumbas has an opening phrase that sounds very similar to the pop song Everybody Loves Somebody, but then moves into different territory. Perdomo leads this one off, playing delicate but very interesting lines before Zenón enters playing the Everybody Loves Somebody theme in different permutations over Perdomo. At 3:12, there is a sudden change, everything stops for a second, and the saxist plays dramatic figures over the rhythm section. Then the Latin beat enters the picture, driven by the bassist, as the music is developed.

El Negro Bambón is a light, fanciful arrangement that makes the melody sound almost like Sufi music but with a Latin beat every few bars. The music skims along in this odd sort of way, played mostly by Zenón with commentary from Perdomo. The rhythm becomes really complex around the 4:20 mark, but then straightens out a bit for Perdomo’s solo. Repeated rhythmic figures played by Zenón on alto make up most of the next chorus, switching to more lyrical playing for the ride-out.

La Gata Montesa opens with a fast, flowing bop line that sounds very Charlie Parker-ish, followed by repeated rhythmic Bs on the alto with drum accents. At the 1:26 mark Zenón plays more Parker-like lines, moving the piece forward before his extended solo with the rhythm playing in stop time. Hans Glawischnig also contributes an excellent bass solo.

Triago Salsa opens with the bass, leading into a fairly complex rhythm with a Latin tinge. The leader dominates this track with his alto sax, playing brilliantly-constructed lines and moving the piece along. Around the four-minute mark we hear a very Latin melody, underscored by Perdomo’s  bitonal chords. A very interesting piece!

Las Caras Lindas almost sounds like a complex Dave Brubeck Quartet chart in the opening, with Zenón playing against Perdomo, then it’s piano and bass in out-of-tempo licks before the rather complex tempo enters and the leader plays a lovely lyric line. The pianist returns to his out-of-tempo licks, with the drums roiling behind him, before the saxist re-enters, playing even more complex lines above them. There are moments of stop time and more shifting tempi before this one is over. Hola is a ballad, but not a very sentimental one; it also has a forward rhythmic momentum that keeps it from sounding sleepy, and the leader plays the melody particularly well. There’s an interesting passage in which Zenón plays a repeated lick while the bass plays bowed improvisations underneath him.

Colobó sounds the most like a salsa song, with the typical salsa beat but broken up occasionally and shifted around by Zenón and his talented group. At 1:23 there’s a splendid passage in which Zenón and Perdomo play rapid, complex lines in unison before the pianist’s solo. Si Te Cantara is another ballad, but again one with some rhythmic backbone. Glawischnig plays another excellent bass solo in this one.

The finale is El Nazareno, a medium-tempo Latin number that almost, but not quite, has a sort of Stan Getz-styled bossa nova feel to it. Aside from the fact that Zenón’s tone is much brighter than Getz’, the music is more melodically and harmonically interesting, but it does have that kind of vibe, which is not a bad thing. The middle section, played on the piano, is pure salsa, however, diverting the mood from Brazil to the Caribbean, and Zenón’s ensuing solo is very complex both rhythmically and in terms of the musical material he uses to form his improvisation.

This is really a splendid album and one that will change your perceptions of Latin jazz. No repetitive rhythms here—and lively, interesting arrangements and solos to boot!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Scheinman & Miller Play a Parlour Game

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PARLOUR GAME / SCHEINMAN-MILLER: Play Money. 116th and Congress. The Right Fit. Michigan. Fake Weather. Lead With Love. Beans and Rice. Meanwhile. Top Shelf. Miss Battle’s Cannonball. Sleep Rider / Jenny Scheinman, vln; Carmen Staaf, pno; Tony Scherr, bs; Allison Miller, dm / Royal Potato Family Records 193483788173

This disc combines the talents of two indie-jazz women, violinist Jenny Scheinmen and drummer Allison Miller, is a set of co-written pieces. The publicity blurb for this CD suggests that the music is “ambitious” and innovative, but in reality it’s just a nice mainstream jam session, which is fine by me since the music is fun to listen to.

Play Money, the opener, starts out like a Dr. John or Professor Longhair piece with that odd New Orleans backbeat they favored. Scheinman plays the melody, but the solo space is then dominated by pianist Carmen Staaf for two choruses, and very fine piano it is. When Scheinman enters, she is playing Cajun-style fiddle in the manner of Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil. The only thing I disliked about this CD was the trimmed high end, which removed too much edge from the performances, and the ultra-warm ambience. No jazz record should be engineered like this.

116th and Congress is a sort of 5/4 jump-blues tune, if you can imagine such a thing, played with a lift and drive by the quartet. Actually, the tempo shifts quite a bit within the piece, probably the influence of drummer Miller. Staaf again plays an excellent solo, with Scheinman filling in on her last few bars before played her own solo. She stays within one chord most of the time. The Right Fit has a slow, slightly funky beat, and on this track Scheinman is really good, followed by more of Staaf’s blues-influenced piano. Michigan, alas, doesn’t have much of a tune and chord changes are quite mundane, but Miller’s drumming is impressive in this one.

Fake Weather, a possible reference to the Climate Change hoax, is a fairly interesting piece with a repeated ground bass over which the soloists improvise. By this point I came to realize that Scheinman is an improviser who makes the most of her limited abilities on her instrument. She is not a virtuoso in the way that David Balakrishnan and others are, but she sets good moods and sticks with them. Lead With Love is a ballad, but the following piece, Beans and Rice, is a nice, medium-tempo blues-influenced piece that has some of the most interesting chord changes on the entire set. Once again, it is Staaf who impresses the listener with her interesting and lively piano, although Scheinman is very playful here as well, using rising chromatic string tremolos.

Meanwhile is the fastest piece on the record, a really manic-sounding jump tune played with brio and spirit—but it only lasts 46 seconds! This is followed by Top Shelf, the most rhythmically and harmonically advanced piece in the set, sounding almost like Thelonious Monk on acid. There are good solos all around.

Miss Battle’s Cannonball has a funky blues beat to it, well played by Scheinman in her Michael Doucet style. Once again, Staaf impresses and Miller plays good drums behind them. The finale, Sleep Rider, is another ballad, with Miller on brushes and both Staaf and Scheinman playing lullaby-like solos.

A good album, then, with some very good tracks on it and a few duds.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Steckel Plays Kodály

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WP 2019 - 2KODÁLY: Sonatina.* Solo Cello Sonata. Duo for Cello & Violin+ / Julian Steckel, cel; *Paul Rivinius, pno; +Antje Weithaus, vln / Avi 8553948D

With the exception of the Sonatina, these are somewhat unusual works by Zoltán Kodály that are played on this CD by Julian Steckel, a cellist with a really deep, rich tone, similar to that of the great British cellist Colin Carr (see my article on Carr in this blog), which is recorded fairly well here. Being an early work (Op. 4), the Sonatina is scarcely one of Kodály’s meatiest works but, being tonal and accessible (read: Pretty), it is quite popular, and Steckel plays it with all the Romantic soul in his heart. Fortunately, Paul Rivinius’ piano playing has backbone and drive, which lifts it from the realm of bathos.

The solo cello sonata, though written earlier (1915), is an entirely different animal, dramatic and edgy with several of the Magyar-influenced harmonies that Kodály, along with his friend Bartók, collected on cylinder recordings in their field research. Moreover, Kodály develops this piece exceptionally well, taking the hard, edgy theme of the first movement and blending it with a more lyrical one as the music moves along. Would that several of our “modern” composers, who know how to write edgy but undeveloped music, listen to this work and understand what it means to actually write music. In the “Adagio,” Steckel gets very deep into the feeling of the music without leaning towards sentimentality, something he prides himself on being able to do. He is known for diving into the scores of the music he plays, investigating every nook and cranny in order to find the unity in a work. I think that Kodály would absolutely love his interpretation of this unusual and difficult sonata. The second movement is particularly long and the musical thread seems fragmented, as if Kodály had changed his mind two or three times while writing it, but Steckel hang in there with him and manages to make us realize that the music represents different but complementary changes of mood. In the third movement, a much tighter-written piece than the first two, Steckel really digs in and plays as if his life depended on it. In short, marvelous music played with commitment and deep emotion. How could one ask for anything more?

The violin-cello duo is also an interesting piece, lying stylistically somewhere between the Romantic Sonatina and the more modern-sounding solo cello sonata. Antje Weithaus makes a good foil for Steckel, complementing his intense playing with sweet, sonorous tones. Is this what Kodály wanted? I would assume so, since Steckel could have chosen another violinist if this wasn’t what the composer intended. At times it works the other way around, the cello playing a soaring melody while the violin plays edgy figures, but more often it’s not. Kodály also has the duo play very seldom with each other; most of the time, they’re playing opposing lines, either in complementary harmony or in counterpoint. The second-movement “Adagio” moves in a slow, almost elegiac manner, with the cellist playing long, flowing notes and the violinist playing light, airy lines above him. At the 2:50 mark, the music suddenly becomes more dramatic, with the violin screaming in its upper range while the cello plays low, rumbling notes, almost like the beginning of an earthquake, before suddenly joining the violin in playing agonized lines of its own.

In the third movement, the duo chase each others’ tails in an emotional roller-coaster that has peaks and valleys, all of it in a tempo that continually shifts and changes from fast to slow and back again. At the 3:10 mark, they play a bit of what sounds like a peasant dance, interrupted by tremolos on the violin and grunted low notes from the cello, which then also plays pizzicato in places.

This is an outstanding CD, one that should put Julian Steckel on the map, for those who hadn’t heard him before, as one of the finest cellists around today.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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