Cesare Civetta’s “The Real Toscanini”

The Real Toscanini

THE REAL TOSCANINI: MUSICIANS REVEAL THE MAESTRO by Cesare Civetta / Amadeus Press, 2012 (260 pp.)

This was one Toscanini book I had not read, so I decided to splurge for a copy. Cesare Civetta is an excellent conductor who currently leads the Beethoven Festival Orchestra in New York: you can hear some of his Beethoven performances on YouTube. He clearly admires Toscanini and spent several years interviewing as many surviving NBC Symphony musicians as he could, including many who were also interviewed by B.H. Haggin (for his book The Toscanini Musicians Knew) and Harvey Sachs (for his first Toscanini biography). In addition, he has used extensive excerpts, translated from Italian, from baritone Giuseppe Valdengo.s book, Scusi, conosco Toscanini?

I will get the negatives out of the way quickly. Unlike Sachs, who is a skilled writer and whose two biographies of the conductor “scan” very well, Civetta’s book is more of a hodgepodge, and several topics are covered over and over again within its 260 pages. For Toscanini-haters, this gives them easy fodder to bash Civetta’s tome, and it has indeed been criticized by reviewers on Amazon for its repetitiveness. I would also add that if you already own the Haggin book and the first Sachs biography, at least a third of this book will seem repetitious because it is. These same musicians made much the same comments to Haggin and Sachs, perhaps not word-for-word but saying pretty much the same things. To put it as kindly as possible, Harvey Sachs is a writer, and a good one, while Civetta is a compiler. To a certain extent, this book reminded me of what I heard about Philip R. Evans’ massive manuscript on jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke, that it rambled and was repetitious, needing a good editor to put it into a readable narrative. Richard Sudhalter was that editor; the publishers of the book gave him co-author credit because of it; and Evans was furious and would never speak to Sudhalter again, though the book benefited tremendously from his judicious editing and rewriting.

Those are the negatives. The positives are that the remaining two-thirds of the book have some very revelatory things to say about Toscanini and his methods, the best and most interesting part of it being the extensive translations from Valdengo’s book, which give the reader a very clear picture of how Toscanini viewed singers. Contrary to popular myth, the conductor did NOT just want docile robots who would bend to his will. Rather, he prized great voices above all but artistic imagination nearly as much. And although Haggin stated that Toscanini hated the singing of tenor Fernando de Lucia and baritone Mattia Battistini for their musical deviations from the score—and he did criticize them for this—the Valdengo manuscript makes it clear that he greatly admired them for qualities that had been lost after two World Wars, the ability to use their voices like perfectly-tuned instruments and their skill at constantly rehearsing certain lines within an operatic text to make it sound as if they themselves were “living” the emotions of the characters they portrayed. Toscanini especially liked de Lucia’s recording of “Addio, Mignon, ma core” for being able to sound as if he were spontaneously projecting the feelings of the character when in fact it was the result of many hours’ practice, and Battistini’s perfect legato and exceptional control of dynamics—even if he did say, in other contexts, that de Lucia “make everything andante” and that Battistini could ham up the music when he was in the mood to do so.

Among other revelations in the book is the one, which I had always suspected, that Toscanini’s Studio 8-H performances were generally faster than all of his others because of the extremely dry acoustics. Nathan Gordon, a violist with the NBC Symphony, states on p. 79 that 8-H was “an acoustically dead studio, which was like a vacuum. It was almost like canned music, horrible. You’d get a hollow sound out of the orchestra [so] his tempos were often on the fast side because he was subconsciously avoiding that vacuum.” Leon Barzin, a violist with the New York Philharmonic who Toscanini encouraged to become a conductor himself, confirms this: “Toscanini…always produced in the hall or in the theatre where there’s a reverberant bounce, and that little bounce is part of his interpretation. 8-H had no bounce at all, and therefore he was trying to re-create the interpretation with the bounce without having the bounce, so he speeded up. “ Civetta adds that there are exceptions to this rule, and that’s true, but not that many. As one example among many, Toscanini’s 1938 Beethoven Ninth Symphony, recorded in Carnegie Hall with good natural acoustics, is a little more than two minutes faster than the one he conducted in Studio 8-H in December 1939 as part of his Beethoven Symphony Cycle, and those two minutes make all the difference in the world between a performance that comes close to the score in tempi but also “breathes” as opposed to one that, especially in the first two movements, sounds like a computer playing the music in a strictly metronomic tempo. There are numerous other examples of this, and the fact that Studio 8-H always sounded better without the rows of seats and people sitting in them also had an effect on his rehearsals, which were generally more relaxed and, to my ears, more musical than the broadcasts of those same works.

There is also an interesting story, told by English horn player Filippo Ghignatti of the La Scala Orchestra, of the 1918 revival of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. The story is on p. 91 of the book:

Toscanini called Puccini from the podium and told him to look over some harmonies he wrote in the score in a certain spot which showed emptiness, and see what he thought of it or, better still, listen to them. Puccini’s answer was, “I don’t have to. If you put those notes there, it’s because they are needed.” Toscanini replied, “But you wrote this opera, not me, and you must see if you like the correction I’ve written.” “The opera, yes, but you are a better musician than I, and I take any correction from you.” Toscanini asked the orchestra to play those penciled notes and Puccini listened very attentively and then he said, “Benissimo! I will call Casa Ricordi [Puccini’s publisher[ and tell them to insert that in all the scores.”

Thus our conception of Manon Lescaut, of which all complete recordings were made after 1930, is in part due to Toscanini’s amendments. We already know that he was partially responsible for the orchestration of La fanciulla del West—Puccini was a very slow worker, the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was coming up soon, and he couldn’t do it all in time—but now we know that some of the color in Manon Lescaut was his work as well…and to be honest, we have no way of knowing how much Toscanini worked on the orchestral score of Turandot before it premiered in 1926.

In addition to Puccini allowing Toscanini to make changes to his orchestration, Claude Debussy also gave the conductor permission to “fix up” La Mer for the same reason, that things “were not clear,” but unlike Sachs, Civetta omits any mention of the numerous times that Toscanini didn’t just change orchestration but added or, more often, omitted bars of music from certain compositions. This was considered standard practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by the time Toscanini was recording and broadcasting in the 1940s it was already considered taboo, and some of those changes did the scores more harm than good. It is the one back mark on his lifelong devotion to presenting the music, supposedly, “exactly” as the composer wrote it.

Returning to the excerpts from Valdengo’s book, we learn that Toscanini agreed with the old-school voice teachers in Italy such as Manuel Garcia Jr. and the Lampertis, that young singers should not sing any actual songs or arias for the first two years of the study, but constantly practice solfeggio  in order to build up their vocal tone and breath support. Then, after two years, said Toscanini, they can sing some Monteverdi and arie antiche to continue work on their technique. But he was spitting into the wind of his time; by the post-World War II era, so many singers died or retired during the War that young voices were needed to fill the void, and as long as some people could sing a bit they were promoted to stardom, only to have their voices fall apart after about a decade of having a major career. It’s a sad but true tale, and if you listen to a great many of today’s singers—not just the famous ones, although some of them are pretty bad, but the numerous ones who make recordings but are not well known—you will hear wobbles, unsteadiness, poor breath support, poor diction, and any number of technical sins that would have gotten them nowhere less than 25 years ago. I don’t want to expand this into a monograph on the decline of singing, but it surely did happen and getting away from proper training of the voice was the beginning of the decline.

Another interesting comment from the Valdengo book was when he asked the baritone if he was nervous just before going out to sing. Valdengo replied that he wasn’t nervous, but had some butterflies in his stomach. Toscanini said that was the same thing as nervousness, and that he, too, was nervous before each and every performance. Then he added something interesting: “You know what I do to overcome it? I become nasty…and that’s really hard for me to do.” Yet both the musicians of the NBC Symphony and Robert Charles Marsh, in his excellent book Toscanini and the Art of Conducting, felt that the temper explosions were a way of breaking down all resistance in the musicians to his way of wanting a passage to go. It was one of his secrets in how he was able to “play” on an orchestra as one plays on an organ, with complete unity of sound yet also with every strand of the music coming through clearly.

We also learn what I had suspected for years, that RCA Victor “flattened out” his dynamics changes before issuing a recording to make the sound more “even.” The musicians admitted that, from a practical standpoint, this was necessary because a recording that had soft passages that one could barely hear and crashing fortissimos that could blow out people’s speakers wouldn’t have sold many records, but this didn’t mollify Toscanini who, listened to the recordings of his work, would complain, “Where is my pianissimo? Why does my crescendo sound so weak?” To which the RCA engineers would assure him that everything was all right. No wonder he hated recording, and no wonder that, even in his high fidelity recordings, there are passages like the opening of the last movement of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony that were meant to sound like a whisper but come across much louder than that. Likewise, RCA flattened out the long, slow, dazzling crescendo that Toscanini made in the finale of the Prologue from Boito’s Mefistofele—you can hear it recorded correctly in the 1948 live performance from La Scala—so that the issued recording doesn’t sound nearly as effective. RCA also damaged the LP release of his orchestral arrangement of the Beethoven Septet, making every movement sound pretty much the same volume when in fact Toscanini had conducted some of the inner movements at a quiet volume and with an elfin touch. In the studio recording of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, they thought they were being very clever by putting the microphones at the very back of the hall, but this had the effect of making the soft passages almost disappear on the LP. You can hear exactly how Toscanini intended it to sound on the 1947 live performance of the same music.

One could go on with more interesting examples from the book, but I’ll leave you with one image: that of Toscanini the teacher and collaborator. Even when he had his temper tantrums, ripped handkerchiefs, broke watches and batons, the musicians had the utmost respect for him not just because of his phenomenal memory and superior knowledge of the score, but also because he made all of them feel like collaborators and not just peons. To Toscanini, his musicians were Artists, not just bodies up on the stage playing instruments, and he always tried to instill that feeling in them. They were in this together; you gave all your blood because he gave all his blood to a rehearsal or a performance. And that is something that scarcely if ever exists nowadays, and it’s a shame.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Nancy Dalberg’s String Quartets

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DALBERG: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Nordic String Quartet / Dacapo 6.220655

Nancy Dalberg (1881-1949) is not a name that will light up marquees in the classical world; in fact, most people outside Denmark have never heard of her; yet she was one of Carl Nielsen’s prized pupils and wrote orchestral works and songs in addition to these string quartets. Still, her output is not large, and since it all came into being between 1909 and 1930 there is no real demarcation between an early or late period for her. All of her music is good, and all of it is consistent in style and tone.

This CD marks the first time that her first and third string quartets have been recorded, even in her home country, and it’s a shame because it is clear from listening to them that she was a musician of high quality. From the liner notes:

Nancy Dalberg, née Hansen, was the daughter of the enterprising pharmacist and manufacturer Chr. D.A. Hansen, who established a technical-chemical laboratory in the 1870s and became an extremely wealthy man. She was born on her parents’ Zealand estate Bøstrup near Slagelse in 1881, but grew up on her family’s other estate, Mullerup, in Gudbjerg on the island of Funen. As a child she learnt to play the piano, and after marrying the engineer officer Erik Dalberg at the early age of 20 and settling in Copenhagen she continued her advanced piano studies with pianist Ove Christensen. This did not, however, lead to a career as a concert pianist, as she was unfortunate enough to contract chronic tenosynovitis [inflammation of the fluid-filled sheath that surrounds a tendon, typically leading to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness]. At a private concert she gave for charity in 1907 she played demanding works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, which underlines her ambition to make her mark within the traditional classical-Romantic repertoire – if only her physique had been able to cope with this.

Her marriage to the artistically gifted Erik Dalberg remained childless and was not a happy one, despite the fact that they shared a passion for music, which, among other things, was expressed in texts he wrote and which she set to music. In 1909, Nancy Dalberg began to study the theory of music and composition under the Norwegian composer and Kapellmeister Johan Svendsen. After his death in 1911, she continued her studies under the composer Carl Nielsen. Here she gained a thorough grounding not only in harmony and counterpoint but also a practical one in musical analysis and orchestration. Nielsen required her, for example, to orchestrate a piano adaptation of Mozart’s G minor Symphony, K.550, and after a while she became so familiar with his way of orchestrating that she was able to assist him. Parts of Carl Nielsen’s Funen Springtime were actually orchestrated by Nancy Dalberg during a summer stay at Mullerup, where Nielsen himself was a welcome guest.

Nancy Dalberg 2So there you have it—a very gifted composer and arranger, but not a prolific one. From the first notes of the first string quartet (1915), the mark of Nielsen’s teaching is evident, yet she does not copy him. Her music, at least in the first movement here, has a certain feeling of melancholy not normally found in her teacher’s music, although it is developed, like his, along classic lines and has a good amount of passion and energy in it. Her handling of harmony, like Nielsen of this period, is in the late-Romantic tradition. The music sounds typically Nordic but is not mushy or sentimental, as were the works of other women composers of her time. You’d never guess that this was the work of a “woman composer”—but then again, you could say the same thing about the works of the immensely gifted Lili Boulanger. Towards the end of the first movement, the tempo suddenly increases and the music becomes very passionate indeed, ending on a D minor chord with the cello emphasizing the fifth or A. This proves to be notable since the second movement, a scherzo, is n A major. The third movement “Adagio” has a minor-key melody that will break your heart in a Schubertian vein. The last movement, a “Vivace,” is both energetic and slightly edgy at the same time, with a slower minor-key interlude in the middle. This is very fine music by any standard.

The second quartet, from 1922, shows her growth as an artist. The first movement here, which begins slowly and moodily in the minor, suddenly explodes passionately. There’s a certain quality about it that reminds one of Schubert in his more personal and pain-filled music, yet the harmonic language, though still tonal, is more advanced. She then forged a melody that is somewhat memorable but somewhat distorted as if from personal pain, which is developed by the quartet. The mood and tempo shifts continue on to the end of the movement. This is followed by the “Allegro scherzando,” which uses swirling figures in the violins played against a melodic line in the viola and pizzicato cello, with even more interesting chord changes. In this quartet, the slow movement is more pastoral in feeling, less melancholy, with a gently rocking motion in its simple but effective melodic line. But then the tempo suddenly increases a bit and the cello croaks out a 7-note motif that is repeated before the upper strings re-enter, now playing in a more emotional manner. Although the last movement is marked “Allegro molto e con spirito,” there is more molto than spirito in this music as it alternates between energetic but not happy movement and sad minor-key themes.

In the third quartet, written in 1927, Dalberg  throws in some interesting harmonic change in the first movement, which is in G minor, and the fast second movement is quite edgy, not at all bucolic. In the middle of the movement, Dalberg heightened the tension via a series of rising chromatics, leading to a sad, forlorn, falling melody. By this time, she was already having problems with her husband, who by this time was suffering from an undiagnosable mental disorder and spent the last years of his life in psychiatric clinics. Nancy didn’t divorce him until around 1941, staying with him through all those years of madness, and one can sense some of her melancholy in the ensuing “Allegretto simplice.” The third movement, “Tempo giusto,” follows immediately on its heels and is a bizarre, angular piece, also in the minor, with edgy downbow attacks from the upper strings while the cello plays a mad, continuous pizzicato beneath them. At around 3:45 we get an ostinato rhythmic figure played by the viola while the violins protest against it in their upper range.

Nancy Dalberg was quite obviously a fine composer who deserves wider recognition. The Nordic String Quartet plays with a bright tone and excellent feeling for the music, which makes this an exceptional release in every respect.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Franz Reizenstein

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REIzENSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F.* Serenade in F. Overture, “Cyrano de Bergerac” / *Oliver Triendl, pno; Nürnberger Symphoniker; Yaron Traub, cond / CPO 555 245-2

Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968) was a German-born British composer who fled to England in 1934 to escape Nazi persecution, taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, and performed as a concert pianist in addition to composing.

Listening to these particularly pieces, I was struck by two things: first, the strong resemblance of his music to that of Lennox Berkeley and Alan Rawsthorne, and secondly, particularly in the Piano Concerto, running figures played by the piano that seem to have no real purpose other than to dazzle the ear. Not all of the piano writing is of this type, but enough of it to realize that here was a composer-pianist who, like Liszt, often showed off in passages that were difficult to play but had no real structural function. It is in the orchestral part that one hears the full measure of his talent; there, the music scurries through unsettled chords, shifting keys both stepwise and chromatically at will, and the orchestration is very colorful. It’s the kind of piece that would not unsettle too many concertgoers nowadays, when this style of composition is now part of the mainstream, and particularly with such a bravura piano part to dazzle the audience with.

Oliver Triendl, a pianist I knew nothing about two months ago, has been popping up with regularity on several of the CDs I’ve chosen to review (he plays piano on the Grigor1 Frid CD I recently reviewed and also plays the Boris Papandopulo  Concerto No. 3), so apparently this is his year. He plays the concerto with excitement, a solid technique and good articulation at the keyboard, and Yaron Traub conducts with equal excitement. The second movement is more interesting, with the soloist playing serrated figures in shifting downward chromatic movement, but in many places I felt as if the harmonic games being played were more calculated and less inspired than one may wish them to be. Much of this is functional, and certainly “correct” composition, without breaking any ground or establishing a really personal style. The third movement is a fairly jaunty piece in 6/8 time; were it not for the constant chromaticism, one might almost consider it a German tarantella.

The Serenade is less bombastic but no less chromatic. This seems to have been Reizenstein’s style, and by golly, he struck with it no matter what he wrote. It is, however, jollier in mein than the concerto, in fact a very pleasant piece to listen to. I particularly liked the jolly third movement, a very lively sort of German jig with spot solos by the flute, violin and clarinet, though it goes on far too long and overstays its welcome.

The “Cyrano de Bergerac” Overture is a more dramatic piece than the two preceding it but no less hung up on dazzling us with his knowledge of chromatics. There’s a nice little fugue in the middle, however, and there’s a nice string theme at 7:55.

So there you go. Not all of the composers who fled the Nazis were as original and talented as Viktor Ullmann or Miecysław Weinberg. Some were just ordinary schmos who wrote music according to a formula.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Peter Mattei’s Stunning “Winterreise”

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SCHUBERT: Winterreise / Peter Mattei, bar; Lars David Nilsson, pno / Bis SACD-2444

Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of the greatest vocalists in his class, has been singing professionally since 1990. I mention that not only because I only became aware of him when he started singing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, some 12 years into his career, but also because it is now 29 years since that debut and the voice has remained as fresh, bright, and steady as it was lo those many years ago. Seriously, he must take very good care of his voice when you consider that even such younger star singers as Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryan Hymel have all run into serious vocal difficulties in a much shorter span of time.

But as much as I’ve loved his voice, I never thought of Mattei as a lieder interpreter in the same way I would Thomas Hampson, who has led a dual career as opera star and song interpreter from the beginning of his career, thus I approached this Winterreise with some concern that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the subtlety and angst that these difficult songs call for.

I shouldn’t have worried. Even in the very first song, “Gute nacht,” he shapes and molds his voice with shadings and accents that I didn’t suspect that he had in his arsenal. Indeed, the way he interprets this song reminded me of Peter Pears’ classic recording with Benjamin Britten, which most lieder singers adore and general voice-lovers detest (Pears had an odd timbre that was dry and occasionally sounded constricted on top). Moreover, Mattei digs into the bitter angst of “Die Wetterfahne” and “Gefor’ne Tränen” as if he had been singing this cycle all his life. As the cycle progresses, my sole complaint was that I didn’t think he was soft enough and didn’t float his tone in “Der Lindenbaum,” though he does so in “Wasserflut” and “Die Krähe.” In “Wasserflut,” I noted one change in his voice over the years: he now has a richer low range than he did a decade ago. Mattei is really deep into the character in “Auf dem flusse,” in a way that’s almost scary. Indeed, as the cycle continues, one notes that Mattei has taken the protagonist from a point of just being bitterly disappointed at being rejected in love to complete emotional instability, as it should be. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Frühlingstraum.” In the lyrical sections of the song, Mattei makes the character sound as if he is still under control, but in the fast sections he explodes in rage, sounding out of control and almost demented.

Another thing I liked about this performance was its good pace. At 69:07, it is easily eight to ten minutes faster than anyone else’s Winterreise, yet it doesn’t feel rushed at all. Moreover, unlike some other recordings of this cycle (but not the Pears), there are no real let-downs in interpretation. Every song has its own feel, with an almost-3-D presentation of the protagonist as if it were he himself singing for you and not a Professional Singer, if you know what I mean.

Pianist Lars David Nilsson is an excellent accompanist if not quite on the psychic wavelength that Benjamin Britten was with Peter Pears—but that was one of the most unique singer-accompanist relationships of the 20th century, and we are unlikely to hear that kind of communicative power from a pianist in this cycle ever again. And yet, the Mattei-Nilsson duo achieves something that not even Pears-Britten did, and that is to reveal the underlying structure of the cycle in addition to its emotional progress. In their hands, the songs sound much more closely knit than in anyone else’s recording, and that includes some real heavyweight competition. Indeed, by the time one reaches “Mut!,” you realize that this is possibly the greatest recording of this song cycle ever made—certainly better than those of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (I’ve heard two of them, and his interpretation differed very little in both), which to be honest I found terribly disappointing—and this is due to both the intense interpretation and the sense of structure than emerges. And Mattei has exactly the right tone of voice and pace for “Der Leiermann,” the cycle’s concluding song, which is damned difficult to pull off well.

Partisans of others’ recordings may hate me for saying this, but this is the greatest performance of Winterreise of all those I have heard. No question in my mind about it; it has everything. No matter how many other recordings you already own (I have four), you need to make room for this on your CD shelf.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Alexander Quartet Tackles Dvořák

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DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 12 in F, “American.” Piano Quintet in A* / Alexander String Quartet; *Joyce Yang, pno / Foghorn Classics FCL 2020

Hot on the heels of their Mozart Quartet CD, which I liked in terms of their approach and style, the Alexander String Quartet now gives us two of Dvořák’s finest and most popular chamber works, the “American” Quartet and the Piano Quintet. As luck would have it, I own a very fine reading of these same two pieces by the Pavel Haas Quartet, and so I was curious to hear the differences.

The Pavel Haas Quartet plays the first work with what I would describe as good forward momentum with good balance among the four strings and good accents, but the phrasing is entirely different from that of Alexander. The best way I can put it is that they approach the music as a Czech piece, with Czech phrasing and accents. That is certainly a viable approach since, after all, Dvořák was Czech. The Alexander Quartet plays it with more accents on the downbeats, almost “springing” their bows on the strings in a style that is more American. And this is a viable approach because this was, after all, the composer’s American quartet.

The question is, though, how much and how strong those accents are. Those who remember Leonard Bernstein know he was generally prone to over-exaggerating such things, italicizing phrases as if to say, “Look at me, I’m different!” Happily, the Alexander Quartet avoids this trap. Their approach is lively and engaging, they bring out a rhythmic spring in the music that others miss, yet their way of playing sounds natural and unaffected.

Indeed, one can “feel” the Negro and American Indian influences very strongly here. Dvořák’s influence of spirituals came from African-American baritone-composer Harry F. Burleigh, who sang them for the Czech composer “very often.” Sadly, because of this the quartet was referred to in its time by the hateful “N” word before it became known simply as the “American” quartet. Ironically, the influence of spirituals is just that; as in the famous Ninth Symphony, “New World,” Dvořák wrote his own themes, merely basing them on the harmonies and forms of black spirituals and American Indian music. (Many people think the second movement of the Ninth Symphony was based on the spiritual “Goin’ Home,” but in fact the spiritual came from the symphony.) Yet in both harmony and rhythm, the music has an authentically American “sound” to it, like the better works of Edward MacDowell which, in fact, did use some authentic themes, largely due to his constant use of the pentatonic scale. The way the Alexander Quartet plays the last movement is especially engaging; they put a “smile” in the music.

The Piano Quintet is, of course, a different matter; the music here is authentically Czech in tone and feeling, and the Alexander Quartet is able to turn around and adapt their style to meet its demands. Joyce Yang, an excellent pianist who works with the quartet quite often, is an impeccable musician, but in the first movement I felt that her playing sounded a bit reticent and not quite strong enough in the faster, more energetic passages. She catches the rhythm all right, but her piano sound is a bit recessed—possibly the result of microphone placement. Come to think of it, the Alexander Quartet also sounds more recessed in sound here as compared to the quartet, but their strings have a more “cutting” sound. As the music progresses, Yang’s tone dues begin to cut through the ambience. Both works were recorded at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, California, but the quintet was recorded at a different session in June 2017 while the quartet was made in May 2018, and the engineers were different. That can make a difference, but at least the performance is a very fine one. They capture the rhythms very well and, as usual, play with great enthusiasm, especially the last movement.

Although it’s a close call performance-wise, I prefer the Pavel Haas recording of the quintet because of the clearer sound profile, but this version of the “American” quartet is clearly one of the finest ever recorded by anyone.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Hey, John Yao: How We Do?


HOW WE DO / YAO: Three Parts as One. Triceratops Blues. How We Do. Golden Hour. Doin’ the Thing. Circular Path. Two Sides. IRABAGON: Tea for T / John Yao Quintet: Yao, tb; Billy Drewes, s-sax/a-sax; Jon Irabagon, t-sax; Peter Brendler, bs; Mark Ferber, dm / See Tao Recordings (no number)

John Yao, whose work I have admired previously, presents us here with a new CD due out on October 18 of this year. In it, he uses two sax players in addition to his own trombone to create some interesting textures and compositions.

According to the publicity sheet accompanying this release, Yao’s intent was similar to that of Duke Ellington’s small groups, which played like a mini-orchestra rather than in the traditional jam session style of intro, theme, string of solos. “The idea is to have different parts coming together into one,” Yao says. “That was the concept that was in play as I was thinking about these amazing players and how to bring them together into an organic combination.”

The music, though modern, is more in the tradition of late-bop groups of the late 1950s/early ‘60s, mixed with a feeling of cool jazz. Billy Drewes’ alto playing shows the influence of outside players of the 1960s. Yao’s compositions are essentially simple in concept: no complex melodic lines and fairly simple, modal changes à la Miles Davis, though his scoring for the three horns—sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, occasionally in polyphony—provides a more “orchestral” sound than Davis’ groups did. Jon Irabagon, on tenor sax, also goes “outside” occasionally but for the most part plays very good, musically coherent solos that fit the framework of the compositions well. As good as Mark Ferber is on drums, it is really bassist Mark Ferber who drives this band with a light but highly propulsive beat. Yao himself doesn’t enter the picture on Three Parts as One until the 5:28 mark, giving the listener time to hear and appreciate his saxists first. Yao’s playing, as always, is tasteful and essentially melodic, with a warm, burry tone reminiscent of Jimmy Knepper.

Triceratops Blues is a medium-slow 6/8 piece with a more interesting theme played in unison by the three horns. One thing that made me smile was Yao’s comment that ““In any arranging class you’ll learn that three horns is the hardest combination to work with in achieving a full sound. If you just had one more voice you can fill out the harmony more clearly, but with three you’re constantly boxed into corners.” Well, this is why you work things out for yourself and don’t listen to nudniks in arranging classes, John. What “arranging classes” did Duke Ellington attend? Or John Kirby? Or Eddie Sauter? Or George Russell…all three of whom (among others of their time) creates miracles with “just” three horns? Remember Mood Indigo? Just three horns, yet it created a hypnotic effect and an entirely new way of hearing those instruments as a combination. Also remember the John Kirby Sextet? They sounded pretty full using just three horns, two of them bright ones (trumpet and clarinet). Still, I liked this piece despite the fact that Yao is the only soloist. It’s an ensemble effort, and one that hangs together very well.

How We Do opens in suspended time with just a little horn fanfare, cymbal washes and interesting bass breaks. After a fast section that one thinks is going to be the theme, the tempo relaxes again, a different tune is heard, and the band stops dead twice, apparently trying to find its rhythm. I found it very humorous, as if it was simulating a band that couldn’t get itself together. Finally, at 2:21, they just start playing a sort of funky R&B tune, and this seems to be the track they’ve decided to run on. Despite little spot solos by Drewes (on soprano), Irabagon and Yao, this is essentially an ensemble concept, although the three horns engage in nice, fairly extended three-way chase choruses which fill out most of the second half.

The Golden Hour also starts out with a 6/8 feel and another simple and elusive melody. You know, sometimes I wonder if modern jazz composers actually know who to write real melodic lines anymore. Even Monk’s and Mingus’ melodies were more memorable than many of these modern pieces. But this one is apparently just a mean of introduction for a brief three-way conversation between the horns before we get our string of solos. From a structural standpoint, then, this one was something of a disappointment for me. It really never started and, being stuck in one chord for a long time, it didn’t go anywhere, though the leader’s solo was the most interesting part of the performance.

Doin’ the Thing is a relatively catchy tune (not fully formed as such, but it does have a hook) in medium swing tempo with a bouncy rhythm in the bass. Upon the arrival of Irabagon’s tenor, however, we suddenly get some bars in double time which add interest to the proceedings. Once again, it is Yao’s trombone that contributes to the musical structure. In the later section, Yao creates an interesting effect with a melodic line that rises and descends in half-steps, much like a Monk piece.

Circular Path opens very slowly, mostly with just Yao’s trombone playing over Brendler’s bowed bass. After cymbal washes come in, we move to Drewes playing soprano over plucked bass, into which Yao re-enters playing harmony. Following this, Brendler doubles the underlying tempo while Yao improvises lines above him within the original pace. Following a pause, we get Irabagon playing the theme on tenor while Drewes complements him with some nice moving figures before the three horns coalesce for the finale. A really nice track.

In Two Sides, we begin with an old-fashioned swinger, the theme played in unison by the horns. Yao emerges almost immediately with a solo in which the tempo becomes more ambiguous (it sounds like 5/4 to me) but then swings back to the bouncy 4. In Yao’s later solo, Brendler’s bass carries on a subtle conversation with him. Drewes goes outside for his alto solo, followed by a quirky duo with Irabagon, later with Yao playing opposing figures underneath. What a great track this is!

Irabagon’s Tea for T also sounds like an old swinger, this time with the tenor playing quite high in its range and Drewes complementing him on soprano. Yao joins them for a spirited three-way conversation, then the trio begins sliding downward chromatically for a few bars before picking themselves up and starting all over again. Brendler plays a terrific solo, followed by a three-way polyphonic passage by the horns. As Fats Waller once said, “I’m feeling very fugal this morning!” The band then suddenly doubles the tempo for a wild ride-out.

What a fine album, for the most part, with some interesting arranged passages and equally interesting solos!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Resuscitating Salviucci’s Fascinating Music

8574049 - cover

SALVIUCCI: Serenade for 9 Instruments. Psalm of David.* String Quartet in C. Pieces for Violin & Piano. Nostalgic Thought: Adagio for Cello & Piano. Chamber Symphony for 17 Instruments / *Sabina von Walther, sop; Ensemble Überbretti; Pierpaolo Maurizzi, cond / Naxos 8.574049

This was one of those unusual alb ums for which Naxos did not provide a booklet for download along with the sound files, thus I can’t tell you too much about this forgotten member of the new Italian school of modern composers. All I could find online was the following:

Salviucci, Giovanni , Italian composer; b. Rome, Oct. 26, 1907; d. there, Sept. 4, 1937. He studied with Respighi and Casella, and also took courses in law at the Univ. of Rome. He then taught at the Istituto Muzio Clementi in Rome and wrote music criticism for the Rassegna Nazionale. He developed a fine style of instrumental writing; his works were performed by Italian orchestras with increasing frequency, but his early death cut short his promising career. His Overture in C-sharp minor (1932) received a national prize.

Salviucci photo


So there you have it. He died a month and a half before his 30th birthday and was a highly prized member of the Italian avant-garde. Goffredo Petrassi wrote to Alfredo Casella, Salviucci’s teacher, that he was “the best of us all.” An Adobe PDF document I found online tells me that he died of “galloping pulmonary consumption.” That’s the polite way of saying he died of TB, but when you’re a classical composer and not just a “pop music” performer like Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Christian or Jimmy Blanton, it becomes “galloping pulmonary consumption.” And Casella didn’t really know Salviucci for that long a period of time, only five years. After getting his diploma in composition in 1932, the younger man decided to further his studies in counterpoint with Casella. In addition to studying with him, Salviucci also reviewed several of Casella’s piano performances in the Rassegna musicale column of the Rassegna Nazionale Journal between 1931 and 1933.

The opening Serenade for 9 Instruments, one of his last works (1937), shows him clearly to be a member of the Stravinsky school, but with a more lyrical top line that sings to which he used Stravinskian harmonies and orchestration in support. Salviucci also had the inner lines of his music “move” more than Stravinsky did, occasionally assuming a very Italianate rhythm. In places, such as around 2:09 in the first movement, he suddenly tosses in a melodic theme that sounds a bit more like Hindemith than Stravinsky, and as the piece goes on he also borrows a few characteristic Hindemith-like harmonies. His sense of structure and development is rigorous, clearly built along traditional classical form, yet sometimes juxtaposing themes (and rhythms) rather than moving forward in a straight line. Salviucci was clearly his own man, a composer who combined learned form with inspiration to create his own style. Had he lived longer, I’m sure that he would have moved further beyond what is even heard in this work.

The 1933 Psalm of David, sung superbly by soprano Sabina von Walther, is given its world premiere recording here. The opening of the piece resembles the music of Francisco Pratella, another of the leading intellectual figures in the modern Italian music movement of that time. Being written for voice, the melodic line is even more grateful than in the instrumental Serenade but, like Pratella, it’s in the accompaniment that one hears the modern composition style. Without the booklet I don’t know exactly the words she is singing, but I’m guessing it’s the Psalm of David, like the title says.

The 1932 String Quartet, also given its world premiere here, combines Italian lyricism with Stravinskian form and harmony. It’s obvious that the 25-year-old Salviucci was already well versed in counterpoint; in fact, the strong contrapuntal lines in the first movement are surprisingly strict in form for a composer who already had advanced ideas. In the second movement (“Adagio molto”), he used rising chromatic figure under which the harmonies descend chromatically. Very unusual! And yet the third-movement “Allegro vivace” is more harmonically straightforward; heard without the first two movements, you might never guess that Salviucci was that advanced of a composer. I might also mention, however, without access to the score, that I believe this is played much too slowly for an “Allegro vivace.” It sounds more like an Allegretto, and a pretty stogy one at that.

The 1930 pieces for violin and piano start out much more tonal, almost late-Romantic. This is another first recording, and in this case I can understand why: it’s really not yet Salviucci’s mature style, at least not in the opening “Andante maestoso.” The “Adagio” is moody but also very much in the late Romantic style although, as in the case of all of his music, well composed, but this is the sort of piece you’re more likely to hear on your local classical radio station. The 1931 Nostalgic Thought for cello and piano is very drippy in a sentimental way—not to my taste at all.

Happily, the CD ends with a real gem, the Chamber Symphony for 17 Instruments, which sounds like Stravinsky in a very jolly mood. This work positively bristles with life and energy as well as a multitude of novel ideas, all knit together brilliantly. There’s a nice contrapuntal passage at 2:12 in the first movement, and in the later slow section Salviucci comes up with some very interesting timbral blends. At the start of the second-movement “Adagio,” he uses a harmonic sequence very close to that of Kalennikov’s famed second symphony and, later on, a passage similar to the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. In the midst of the “Allegretto,” he tosses in a repeated staccato figure played by trumpet and French horn with the oboe winding its way around it, then changes to a brisk little dance figure played by cellos and basses with the other instruments playing around it. Later on, the basses join the trumpet and horn for an encore of the rhythmic figure. The final “Allegro” is yet another surprising piece, full of edgy staccato rhythms and high figures played by the flute and piccolo. At about 3:40, Salviucci throws in some rapid counterpoint in the lower voices before relenting, easing up the tempo at 4:17, and ending on an Aaron Copland-like theme.

This is clearly an interesting composer whose work needs and deserves more exposure. Highly recommended except for the nostalgic pieces!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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