The IN Trio’s “Cascade”

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CASCADE / ARMACOST: Cascade. Green Doll’s Phone. Circuitous Route. Alawain. FINGER: Niemand. Waterfalls. SWARTZ: Courage. Bass Guajira. Good Ole Days. Now I Know. Island / IN Trio: Tim Armacost, t-sax/s-sax/a-fl/electronics; Harvie S [Swartz], bs; Christian Finger, dm/perc / Centaur CRC 3718

Centaur Records doesn’t really release many jazz albums, but here is one featuring one of my favorite bassists. I couldn’t discover on the Internet when Harvie Swartz just started using his last initial—the records I have of him with Sheila Jordan spells out his last name—but thankfully his playing doesn’t short-change us.

The opener, Tim Armacost’s Cascade, sounds like a New Age or Soft Jazz piece except that the structure is unusual, but Christian Finger’s Niemand is an atonal work which opens with Harvie on bass, followed by Armacost on alto sax with underpinning by Finger. In places, it sounds like a Mingus piece, but alas, it ends all too soon (only 1:25 long). This, however, leads into Armacost’s Green Doll’s Phone, an odd piece in an odd meter in which both alto saxist and bassist play the melody together before it moves into the improvisations, at which point Harvie sets up a nice walking tempo while Armacost improvises above him, now in a straight 4. After Harvie plays solo for a while, Armacost joins him in a sort of chase chorus (or couple of chase choruses). Harvie plays very inventively indeed, following which Armacost returns for his own licks with drum breaks by Christian Finger.

Harvie S’s Courage opens with the bassist playing in 4 but with the stress beats broken up irregularly, then Armacost comes in with the principal tune before they begin playing variants on it. The saxist really swings by the time they reach the 2:40 mark, with Harvie pushing the rhythm with his bass and Finger playing very interesting drums behind them. Towards the end, Swartz plays a repeated rhythmic motif while Finger solos in the foreground.

Circuitous Route has a quasi-Latin sort of beat and is played in A minor (with some transpositions here and there). Armacost switches to soprano sax on this one, and Finger has some drum licks which he tosses into the mix. The solos are again excellent. Bass Guajira opens with Harvie playing very high up on the bass, soft plucked notes that create an interesting ambience before moving down to his lower range. He stays there for a couple of minutes, playing by himself, until Armacost enters in the low range of his alto and Finger plays finger cymbals behind them. There’s a certain forlorn quality about this piece that I just couldn’t shake.

The Good Ole Days is a medium-tempo swinger with just a bit of a modern feel to it, played tastefully by the trio. At 1:26 the tempo suddenly doubles, but then returns to the original a few bars later. At 2:50 the tempo doubles once again in the midst of Armacost’s alto solo. Eventually it just becomes Armacost and Finger playing together at the brisker pace. Now I Know is a ballad, made somewhat interesting due to Armacost’s fine soloing.

Island is an interesting piece written by Swartz, opening with Armacost on soprano sax and the composer underpinning him on bass as the drummer tosses in some percussion effects (including a tambourine). The Swartz-Armacost duo becomes more complex and agitated, developing the music in tandem. By contrast, Alawain is a very complex piece with the rhythm distributed irregularly and both the bassist and alto saxist in top form. Finger also gets his licks in with some exceptional drumming.

In the finale, Waterfalls, Armacost is back to playing electronics while Harvie S plays bowed bass, again emulating ambient jazz but with just enough of a twist in the melody line and rhythmic distribution to make it interesting. Finger also gets an extended solo on this one, following which Swartz switches to pizzicato bass, interjecting some nice atonal figures.

This is an excellent album that should not be underestimated!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Unusual Music of David Sawer

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SAWER: Rumpelstiltskin – Ballet Suite. Cat’s-Eye. April\March. Between / Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; Martyn Brabbins, cond / NMC NMCD251

This disc opens with the suite from David Sawer’s unusual ballet based on the story of Rumpelstiltskin. (Microsoft Word has apparently never heard of Rumpelstiltskin as it keeps underlining his name in red as a misprint.) A while back, I reviewed a musically excellent opera based on the story of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders and made the comment at that time that it’s always a little dicey doing an opera based on a fairy tale because fairy tales normally appeal to children (e.g., Hansel und Gretel), but ballet is an entirely different art form. Ballet is not intended to present DRAMA on the stage, just a balletic interpretation of a story; ballet is not meant to make you think, only to appreciate how the composer and choreographer make things work together. Thus we have such “classic” ballets as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and an excellent modern one based on Alice in Wonderland. In this milieu, Rumpelstiltskin fits in just fine.

Sawer has also written operas, none of which I’ve heard (From Morning to Midnight, Skin Deep and The Skating Rink), thus I cannot comment, but the music for this 2011 suite, based on his complete score for ballet written in 2009, is definitely on the strange side. Even the rather quiet opening of the first piece, “The Idle Boast,” is full of bitonal passages that have a peculiar effect on the listener, and as the music progresses it just gets odder, with lumbering rhythms, biting trumpet fanfares, and even a French horn solo. This Rumpelstiltskin is apparently made of broken machine parts that were cobbled together by some drunken alchemist!

But really, I liked it very much, though I have a hard time imagining a ballet company actually dancing to this. One thing I particularly liked about it was that the music went somewhere; it wasn’t just lumbering effects without structure. In “Straw Into Gold,” Sawer uses lightly-played pizzicato strings to simulate the spinning wheel that the little gnome used to make his treasure. There are some very interesting backbeats in the music as it progresses, with just a hint of jazz rhythm that I liked as well. Mostly, this movement is scored for just strings and harp, at least until 2:32 when a blaring trumpet suddenly appears, followed by a tuba playing an odd melodic line while trombones and trumpets play above it.

“Wedding and Coronation” opens with high winds and brass playing a six-note falling motif around which the tuba and trombones insert their own commentary. The falling motif is then transformed into a repeating pattern of notes, with squawking clarinet around it, before the tension relaxes and we hear soft clarinets playing a melody above the lumbering brass. I was particularly struck by the way Sawer was able to split his orchestra up, using only a section or two at a time rather than as a homogenous unit as so many composers do. This movement develops strangely as well, with atonal flourishes and chords tossed in before moving on to an almost minimalist theme played by the clarinets in their lower register with string figures up top and other instruments moving the music along in the middle. At 5:15 in, we hear a solo flute playing a quirky figure against soft strings playing an awkward, almost backwards rhythm. Sawer certainly knows how to keep things diversified.

“Guessing Games” presents us with more asymmetrical brass figures, more or less developed with lightly-played string figures and the omnipresent tuba. Again, the orchestra sort of deconstructs before our ears, using such odd combinations as harp, piccolo and bassoon in one very quirky passage. Muted trumpets play a repeated fanfare, echoed by the clarinets, as a string bass temporarily replaces the tuba down below. “Rumpelstiltskin’s Last Dance” is equally bizarre, built around a lumbering and rhythmically asymmetrical figure that slowly builds in intensity. A very unusual and creative piece, which builds to a strong climax.

The second work on this disc, Cat’s-Eye, is described as follows in the publicity blurb:

Cat’s-Eye is inspired by the fantascope projector, with its spectacular optical tricks that shocked audiences in the 1800s. A simple device, called “l’oeil-de-chat,” caused these images to appear and disappear: as the eye closed, the source of light was extinguished.

220px-Prof._Stampfer's_Stroboscopische_Scheibe_No._XThe fantascope was also related to the phenakistiscope, the first “moving image” projector (left). The piece is divided, on the recording at least, into seven little parts lasting between 57 seconds long (the first one) and 5:22 (the last one), named according to the bar numbers in the score. I enjoyed this piece but felt , in a way, that it was just a bit more contrived than Rumpelstiltskin n that Sawer was purposely using rhythmic “winking” effects in the orchestra to simulate the effects of this optical illusion. Of course, you can’t replicate a visual effect in purely auditory terms; perhaps, in performance, spotlights on the performers go off and on as they play (which would surely be effective). Nonetheless, the music is striking and. even in the soft passages such as the third part beginning at bar 90, absorbing to listen to. At about the 2:46 mark in this movement, Sawer has the clarinets play odd figures in their lower range while “buzzing” on their reeds, followed by what sounded to me like scraping sounds in the background while piano, xylophone and strings play odd, edgy figures. The next section opens with a classical variant on wah-wah brass, the trumpets using plunger mutes to create an open-and-close effect in short staccato motifs. As the piece progresses, we hear Sawer using a great many unusual timbral effects and rhythmic shifts to keep the listener off-balance. By the time we reach the section beginning at bar 300, the music has split up, becoming more and more fragmented and terse.

April\March is described as describing “a reversal of time” exploring past and present. The music here is, for Sawer, more pastoral and a bit less edgy than the two preceding pieces, though it is constructed in a very interesting manner using short, lyrical violin motifs against which the clarinet in its low register, biting muted trumpets and pizzicato bass interject their own commentary. By the 6:44 mark time, or at least the tempo, is indeed “running backwards” as Sawer continues to use isolated, edgy figures. Ten minutes into it and all of the music is running backwards, at least from a rhythmic standpoint. At 14:30, he uses “punchy” figures in the brass to dislocate the rhythm still further. The one problem I had with this piece is that I felt it went on too long and repeated too many ideas.

The finale, Between, is a relatively short (5:42) but quirky piece for harp. It was an OK piece, nothing to write home about.

A mixed review, then. I really liked the first two works, but had reservations about the last two.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Shifrin Plays Clarinet Quintets “For Our Time”

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CLARINET QUINTETS FOR OUR TIME / ELLINGTON: Ducal Suite (arr. Schiff): Clarinet Lament; Air-Conditioned Jungle; Heaven; Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ in Rhythm. ROGERSON: Thirty Thousand Days. V. COLEMAN: Shotgun Houses / David Shifrin, cl; *Dover Qrt; +Harlem Qrt / Delos DE 3576

Veteran clarinetist David Shifrin presents us with clarinet quintets “for our time,” the first of which reaches way back to the early 1930s when Duke Ellington first wrote and recorded Rockin’ in Rhythm, 1935 for Clarinet Lament, then moving forward to 1943’s Air-Conditioned Jungle and 1968’s Heaven, the latter written for star vocalist Alice Babs who sang it at his Second Sacred Concert.

Almost immediately, we are aware of the dichotomy that still separates many classical musicians from an access to jazz. Shifrin’s playing in Clarinet Lament is entirely correct insofar as classical clarinet playing goes, but his performance bears only a superficial resemblance to the way Barney Bigard played it on the original recording. Not only is he missing the wonderful “wood tone” in the lower register that Bigard and many other New Orleans clarinetists were able to draw from the instrument, but also a certain amount of swing. Ironically, the Dover Quartet does swing, and thus saves the day. Air-Conditioned Jungle is a bit better for Shifrin because it calls for more virtuosic and less tonally expressive playing, but once again, it’s the Dover Quartet that shines.

I particularly liked David Schiff’s arrangement of Heaven, more complex than Ellington’s original, particularly the string quartet part which has some music not in the original. Schiff actually makes an entirely different piece of it, and here Shifrin is more at home stylistically if somewhat clinical of tone. I’m not sure. Kinda Dukish is a piece that Ellington sometimes used as a preface to Rockin’ in Rhythm, which had an interesting history. Originally written and recorded in 1931, in two parts, it was a medium-tempo piece with the old-fashioned “stomp” rhythm of that time, but after bandleader Charlie Barnet updated it as a hard-swinging charger in 1940, Ellington completely revamped his arrangement and made it equally fast and even more furious than the Barnet recording. (When I heard Duke and his band play it in 1973, he used his entire saxophone section, standing in front of the band in a row, playing the lead melody like a sort of musical bulldozer.) Schiff’s arrangement is closer to the 1931 original but a bit faster, using transparent textures in the string writing that, again, are excellent. Shifrin tries to swing but only approximates the proper rhythm.

Chris Rogerson’s Thirty Thousand Days, written in 2017 on a commission from Chamber Music Northwest, was premiered by Shifrin and the Dover Quartet. The title alludes to what Rogerson’s father considered to be the average lifespan, 30,000 days divided by thirds. The music is melodic and tonal with a slightly modern bent. The first movement is not music that would be banned from classical FM radio stations. Overall, the effect of the music is soft and calming. Rogerson becomes much more interesting in the second movement, marked “Prestissimo, con sordino,” where fast, edgy eighths played by the quartet are contrasted by the clarinet line with is in turn melodic and quite busy with a slow, mysterious section in the middle. In the last movement, “Quasi una ciacona,” Rogerson begins with a soft, slow melody played a cappella by the clarinet, with the strings entering at 1:03 playing a soft cushion of chords beneath him. The music here is autumnal, reflecting one’s slowing down in the last third of one’s life (unless your name is Arturo Toscanini or Paul McCartney). It’s a somewhat interesting piece but, to me, a bit of a downer.

The last work on this disc, Shotgun Houses, was written by Valerie Coleman as a tribute to the late Muhammed Ali, as both grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. The title and opening movement are meant as an allegory of the “row houses” in hers and Ali’s childhood neighborhoods. It begins with a sustained string quartet chord with Shifrin coming in above the group, playing a series of brief motifs as the underlying support shifts to portamento string passages, then tremolos, before the quartet breaks up into four individual parts to make commentary before regrouping behind Shifrin. Then the tempo picks up and the music becomes livelier, albeit with an irregular beat. The quartet then plays edgy bitonal chords behind the clarinet’s solo line, which meanders a bit in syncopated eighths up and down the range of his instrument before ending quietly.

The second movement, “Grand Avenue,” is much more lyrical, described by Coleman as “a love ballad to his mother.” Since I don’t care much for love ballads, let us move on to the last piece, “Rome 1960.” This begins with “a young Cassius Clay, Jr. training with a boxing bag,” reflected in the music by the fast rhythmic figures played by the viola and cello. The crowing clarinet part represents his youthful bragging to news reporters. The second half of this movement depicts his championship boxing round in the Olympics, with the music emulating the ebb and flow of a boxing match. The clarinet simulates his jabs and punches as the strings play short, stabbing chords behind it. The music also simulates the sound of the “bell” at the end of each round. My sole complaint was that, to my ears at least, none of the performers sounded as if they were very motivated or excited to be playing this music, which is quite ingenious.

A mixed review, then, both for the music and its performance. I’d love to hear the Ducal Suite played by someone like Don Byron, however!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Merel Quartet Plays Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 1. Octet for Strings* / Merel String Qrt + *Castalian String Qrt / Solo Musica SM293

Here is yet another new CD of old classical music. I can only presume that the reasons these recordings keep coming out in bushel-basketsful is because this is what hipster and millennial classical “aficionados” want to buy. As it turns out, these are fairly good performances, but I’m using this as an illustration of my perennial question, “Why bother unless you really have something different to day about the music?”

The Merel String Quartet plays with a good feel for the musical line and a certain amount of energy, but alas, they subscribe to the Religion of Straight Tone. For this reason I prefer the recordings by the Pacifica Quartet, but within their own preset limitations, the Merel Quartet plays well with particular care taken of the dynamics. Their collective incisiveness in the fast movements, particularly the last one, is simply delightful.

Much to my surprise, however, the performance of the famed Octet by the combined forces of the Merel and Castilian String Quartets is much better despite (not because of) the use of straight tone. I am not ready to cast my recording of this work by the wonderful octet assembled by the late Jascha Heifetz around 1967, a group that included (are you ready for this?) Israel Baker as second violinist, William Primrose and Virginia Majewski as violists, and Gregor Piatagorsky as first cellist. Very often, such all-star ensembles don’t work well together as a unit, but this one does, to great effect. Nonetheless, this performance is not that far behind in musicality and energy, and yes, that did take me back a little after hearing the quartet.

For this I must credit the “second” quartet here, the Castalian. Founded in 2011, this still-young group consists of first violinist Sini Simonen, second violinist Daniel Roberts, violist Charlotte Bonneton and cellist Christopher Graves, and they are something special. In the second movement of the Octet, I heard a bit less energy and feeling than I would have liked, and I attribute this to the reticence of the Merel Quartet which, after all, is the “head” group on this CD. The finale, however, is quite good.

So there you are; and now you know why I back off from reviewing the umpteenth new recording of old material. Believe it or not, there were outstanding musicians in the past and they did know what they were doing!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jansons’ Great Shostakovich Seventh

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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad” / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik BRK900184 (live: Munich, February 11-12, 2016)

As I mentioned in my review of Mariss Jansons’ outstanding recording of the Schubert Ninth, he is a conductor who blows hot and cold. Some of his recorded performances are outstanding while others are pretty mediocre (especially, for some odd reason, his Mahler), and you really can’t tell from one disc to the next. Happily, he seems to have a good rapport with this work, which he has conducted on a number of occasions: there are two earlier recordings, with the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1988 and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 2006, a live performance with this same Bavarian Radio Orchestra from 2005, and another live performance with the New York Philharmonic from April 2016, two months after this one. All are good, but in many small details this one, scheduled for release in October, struck me as superior.

One such are his tempi, which in all four movements are somewhat faster than his recording with the Concertgebouw. Another comes from his decisions in acceleration and deceleration of said tempi. His first movement, believe it or not, is nearly two minutes slower than Toscanini’s performance—although if you check the score, Toscanini’s tempo is dead on the money—yet except for the acceleration near the end of the soldiers’ march section, none of it sounds rushed, and this acceleration gives one the feeling of an unstoppable force. Interestingly enough, at that exact same spot in his performance, Toscanini slows down, and this, in its own way, also gives a feeling of inevitability to the onslaught. So don’t come crying to me that Toscanini always conducted things too fast!

In the second movement, Jansons is a bit slower than Toscanini, by 35 seconds (over a movement that lasts about 12 minutes), but Jansons doesn’t “feel” slow and Toscanini doesn’t “feel” fast, the reason being that the Italian conductor took Shostakovich’s pace literally while Jansons introduces some moments of rubato, albeit tasteful ones that enhance the moment rather than making it drag. He also played the opening melodic line just a hair slower than Toscanini.

In general, what I particularly liked about Jansons’ reading was that he made very effective dynamic contrasts throughout the symphony, paying particular attention to all the little crescendos and decrescendos in the score. In the quieter, slower sections, Jansons suspended time and made these passages “float” where Toscanini ever-so-slightly nudged them forward with a “singing” cantilena. The Italian conductor was also much slower than Jansons in the third movement, but in the fourth it worked the other way around. This was the one movement that Toscanini conducted quicker than score tempo in order to press the matter home more forcefully, and thus the one portion of this performance that Shostakovich complained about; but when Leopold Stokowski finally got around to conducting it, Shostakovich didn’t like his interpretation at all!

Jansons’ slower tempi in the last movement gives the music excellent gravitas, but to be fair, Toscanini imbued the whole movement with a beautiful cantilena feel—perhaps too Italianate for Shostakovich, but effective when heard on its own without an A/B comparison. Yet another detail that goes by quickly but is better than in previous readings is the stronger accent that Jansons gives to the basses when they enter near the beginning of the movement. Of course, sonics also play a part in our emotional response to such a work. Toscanini’s recording, though greatly enhanced by Urania in their recent pressing, suffered from the claustrophobic sonics of Studio 8-H, and RCA’s engineers “flattened out” his dynamics changes because, if they set them to the loudest moments, the quietest would not be inaudible on the recording, and if they set them to the softest the loud passages would make the needle jump off the record. This was a constant problem with Toscanini’s RCA recordings, and Urania, alas, did not fix the extreme changes in dynamics marked in the score (but I have in my own copy, which you can listen to HERE).

As to the Jansons recording, the sound is much “airier” here than in his Concertgebouw version, just as the Concertgebouw recording was airier than the one with the Leningrad Philharmonic. You can hear samples of both on YouTube if you’d like to check (as I did). Yet even with more air around the orchestra, Jansons elicits a slightly grittier sound in the loud passages here than he did in 2006, and this is better for the symphony.

Of course, you are free to disagree with me if you tend to prefer the Concertgebouw recording to this one, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the best stereo/digital performance of this symphony.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Richard Blackford’s “Kalon”

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BLACKFORD: Kalon. Beklemmt. Stile Concilato / Albion Qrt; Czech Philharmonic Orch.; Jirí Rožeň, cond / Signum SIGCD568

From the publicity blurb for this recording:

The Ancient Greek word Kalon was used by philosophers to describe perfect physical and moral beauty. In this recording, the Albion Quartet and the Czech Philharmonic explore the different aspects of Kalon through the context in which beauty can exist in ugliness and darkness. This record is the result of Richard Blackford’s doctorate at the University of Bristol, which investigates the use of polytempo. The recording is a way of applying the findings of his doctorate in a range of musical contexts. Kalon is unique as it explores the use of polytempo in the context of extended tonality and modality, which could be said surpasses the complexity posed by serialist works of a similar nature, such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen or Carré.

Pretty complex academic doublespeak, no?

Fortunately, the music is very interesting (I say that because the majority of modern academic classical music I’ve heard is anything but). After a solo violin introduction, the orchestra enters, playing stiff rhythms against that set up by the violinist. Then we have fun with tempo changes, during which time Blackford develops his music somewhat tonally (well, modally at least). There are brief violin solos here and there as the rhythm relaxes for a slower section, after which the tempo picks up once again. By and large, the music reminds me of some of the experiments of the 1960s using polyrhythms (he certainly isn’t the first composer to do so), but at least his music is interesting and well written.

Beklemmt opens with the orchestra, after which the violinist comes in playing high, edgy figures against it, but this quickly settles into a slow, moody series of themes with the basses prominent playing a low drone beneath. The string quartet as a unit then enters, playing music typical of the sort written for such a combination in the modern style, sounding a bit like Janáček, before the harmony becomes thornier and the polytempi work their way in. By the time we reach the halfway mark, the string quartet is playing some surprisingly late-Romantic figures, but the basses, and then the rest of the orchestra, muscle their way in with lumbering figures. Things become complex when the quartet re-enters and both groups play rhythmically complex figures against each other, but then the music becomes ever slower, almost coming to a standstill at one point, with the lower strings of the orchestra playing figures that sound like waves. Then it ends.

The third and last piece, Stile Concilato, again begins with the orchestra, this time with the violas playing tremolos and the celli playing pizzicato figures. Edgy running figures played by the rest of the strings are then heard, after which the basses play their own tremolos while the violins play pizzicato against them. Edgy string figures continue to appear in polytempo, then the orchestra stops, allowing the string quartet to enter playing a more lyrical theme. This continues for a while with the orchestra’s strings interjecting swooping figures into the mix, then the edgy orchestral string figures return in a new permutation. Like the others, this is an interesting piece.

Unfortunately, that’s all there is! The entire CD is only 23 minutes and 22 seconds long. As good as the music is, that’s a bit of a ripoff. I suggest trying to find an inexpensive download of the music files and album cover, then supplementing it with Blackford’s excellent violin concerto Niobe as played by Tamsin Waley-Cohen with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Ben Gernon, which you can find HERE. You’ll be glad you did.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Geoffrey Simon’s Debussy CDs

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DEBUSSY: La Cathédrale Engloutie (arr. Stokowski). L’Isle Joyeuse (arr. Bernardo Molinari). Deux Arabesques (arr. Mouton). La Mer. Bruyères (arr. Percy Grainger). Danse (Tarantelle Styrienne) (arr. Ravel). Children’s Corner (arr. André Caplet) / Philharmonia Orch.; Geoffrey Simon, cond / Signum SIGCD2092

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DEBUSSY: Estampes No. 2: La soirée dans Granada (arr. Stokowski). Clair de lune (orch. Caplet). Estampes No. 1: Pagodes (orch. Grainger). La fille aux cheveux de lin (orch. Gleichmann). Nocturnes.* Première rapsodie for Clarinet & Orchestra.+ Petite Suite (orch. Henri Büsser) / Philharmonia Orch. *& Chorus; +James Campbell, cl; Geoffrey Simon, cond / Signum SIGCD2093

My regular readers know that I am normally no fan of transcriptions of classical music, whether it’s a violin sonata transcribed for bassoon or oboe or an orchestration of a piano piece or chamber music, but once in a while such things work well. Claude Debussy’s music has long been fodder for such transcriptions, dating back to the composer’s own lifetime, and the list of names given here of the transcribers include such well-known composers as Percy Grainger and Maurice Ravel as well as such lesser-known ones as André Caplet, who spent much of his career transcribing Debussy for orchestra, Italian conductor Bernardo Molinari and Henri Büsser, the French conductor best known for having made the first complete electrical recording of Gounod’s Faust in 1930 (with legendary bass Marcel Journet as Mephistopheles).

Of course, this list also includes Leopold Stokowski, the “Technicolor Maestro” who spent a lifetime trying his damnedest to make classical pieces sound like movie music (and did pretty well at it, too). Stokie’s orchestration of La Cathédrale Engloutie is a typical effort, turning one of the most imaginative and original of all piano pieces into an M-G-M or J. Arthur Rank spectacular. However—and this is key—Geoffrey Simon’s conducting is so good that he transforms it into a mini-masterpiece. He has exactly the right touch for this music, combining its opaque qualities with a bit of muscle, just as Debussy wanted in his music. I should also add that to the usual Debussy opaqueness, Simon also brings out (when the scores allow it) tremendous clarity of texture and a bit of backbone, which Debussy also appreciated in interpreters of his music. Add to this some of the most spectacular sonics I’ve ever heard, and you have two CDs of music that will absolutely captivate you and hold your attention.

Of course, I judge any Debussy conductor by his genuine orchestral masterpieces, and Simon has included two of the big three on here, La Mer and the Nocturnes, omitting only the three Images pour orchestre as well as the authentic Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra. Following the Engulfed Cathedral, Simon gives us a spirited reading of L’Isle Joyeuse that will pin you to the wall, and his performance of the Deux Arabesques (arranged by someone named Mouton, whose first name I could not discover online) is also very fine.

Ah, but then we encounter La Mer, and this is a hard-driven performance indeed—believe it or not, faster than the recording Arturo Toscanini made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and far more brusque in phrasing. Simon drives the second movement as if it were a Beethoven Scherzo, which I didn’t care for at all.

Yet when he continues with the smaller pieces (Bruyères, Tarantelle Styrienne and especially the Children’s Corner), all is fine.

The second CD begins with Stokowski’s orchestration of Evening in Granada, which Simon also conducts well, followed by a very fine Clair de lune. Grainger’s orchestration of Pagodes is superb, using light percussion to create an Eastern atmosphere, and Simon handles it well. Someone named Gleichmann orchestrated The Girl With the Flaxen Hair, also a very sensitive transcription, and here Simon is atmospheric indeed.

Then we get the complete Nocturnes. These are also Toscanini-like in terms of clarity of texture and slightly quicker tempi, but not, to my ears, as insensitive as his La Mer. In fact, I would have to say that this is now my favorite modern/digital recording of these pieces. Simon’s performance of the clarinet Rhapsody is also excellent.

I also liked Büsser’s arrangement of the Petite Suite, so that makes the second disc a winner from start to finish. If only Simon’s La Mer had been a bit slower and more sensitive, both of these discs would have been outstanding. But even as it is, the performances here, by and large, are extremely well played and fantastically recorded.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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