Licak & Wośko’s “Entrails United”

Licak

ENTRAILS UNITED / LICAK-WÓSKO: Spleen and Bowel. Kukulkan. Wings. Folksong. East River. Take the L Train. Viankolia. Vertigo. Wise One / Tomasz Licak, t-sax; Carl Winther, pno; Martin Buhl, bs; Radek Wósko, dm / RecArt 0012

This album, released in 2014, has only recently been promoted by Naxos as part of the RecArt family. Although the music breaks no new ground—in fact, in some ways it seems decidedly retro—it is well written, with numerous asymmetric meters used and very good interplay between the quintet’s members, particularly Licak and pianist Winther.

There seems nothing particularly retro in Licak’s sax playing, however. He takes several unexpected leaps into the stratosphere on his tenor, sometimes, to my ears, screeching a bit too much and for no apparent reason, but overall he’s a good player and pretty interesting. In Kukulkan he closely resembles John Coltrane.

Oddly enough, in Wings I didn’t really find Licak all that interesting and certainly not original. It’s just one of his few “down” tracks on this album. By contrast, Folksong is an excellent Mingus-like line that Licak plays with a great idea of his solos’ shape and form. The Mingus similarity continues in East River, which begins with an excellent solo bass intro by Martin Buhl before Licak enters to play the irregular but attractive opening theme. This one sounds as if the meter is regular,  but it is not, and it keeps shifting as well.

Contrary to one’s expectations, Take the L Train bears no resemblance to Billy Strayhorn’s iconic Take the “A” Train in style, melody or rhythm. Indeed, it could have been named anything because its form is open meter in the beginning, then a fast swing tempo in the middle. Winther’s excellent single-line piano dominates the opening section of this one, and Licak’s tenor solo really cooks, going through several permutations on its way to the finish line.

Viankolia is a ballad, and quite a nice one at that, with Licak playing some of his most tender tenor on the entire album while Winther stays pretty much in double-time, single-note mode. If I’ve made little comment about Wośko’s drumming on this album, it’s not because it isn’t good but simply because it’s expectedly good, if you know what I mean. It’s not exceptional in any way though it is always appropriate for the musical situation.

Vertigo is one of the most boppish lines on the album, with Winther flying through his opening solo with consummate ease. Licak plays an excellent solo with only Wósko’s drums supporting him until the third chorus, when bassist Buhl comes flying in with superb, fast lines to fill in the texture as Winther jabs some chords into place.

The final track, Wise One, is another ballad. This is a serious programming mistake that far too many jazz groups are doing nowadays, ending their CDs with a ballad. Why? Are people really impressed by your ending with a ballad? I’m not, and in this case the tune is elusive and not memorable, a double mistake, though the solos are quite good. At the six-minute mark, Winther sets up some swirling figures on the piano, creating a vortex into which Licak enters before the music calms down again for the outro.

Quite a nice album, sometimes understated but generally creative and interesting music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Who Was Roman Palester?

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WP 2019 - 2PALESTER: The Wedding Cake.1 3 Poems by Czesław Miłosz.2 Letters to Mother3 / 2Iwona Hossa, sop; 3Szymon Komosa, bar; 1Women’s Choir of the Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic, Krakow; Beethoven Academy Orch.; Błaźej Wincenty Kozlowski, cond / RecArt 0025

Every year now, it seems I discover more interesting composers I’ve never heard of before. Roman Palester (1907-1989) is the latest.

He would clearly never fit in with today’s Democratic Socialists. For one thing, he was well read and a brilliant, independent thinker. Today’s Democratic Socialists don’t think at all; indeed, they are trained by their teachers not to think but merely to react emotionally. For another, he was an avowed opponent of National Socialism and Communism, doing regular programs for Radio Free Europe. Indeed, his decision to leave his homeland in 1950 due to their being part of the Soviet Union made him persona non grata in Poland, banned as both a man and an artist. He was quite willing to be outside the mainstream of his time because to him, it mattered to be free and live in a country that was not Socialist or Communist.

Pay heed, Socialism-loving millennials. This could be your future as well if you persist in trying to turn the U.S. into a Little Soviet Union, which is what you are doing.

The three works on this CD were written in his full maturity as a composer, The Wedding Cake in 1942, Poems of Czesław Miłosz in 1973-77 and Letters to Mother in 1984-87. The first of these is clearly influenced by Stravinsky, interwoven with a discovery of “Old Polish and a new musical language.” This music also has its roots in the work of Szymanowski, who had died just five years earlier (1937) and whom Palester obviously admired a great deal. The harmony is modern, the rhythms that of Polish folk music, and for me this is the Polish equivalent of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It’s a great pity that this work is not performed more often. It has a rhythmic vitality that Szymanowski often avoided in his quest to modernize Polish classical music, yet there are highly unusual passages, such as descending chromatic chords for the chorus near the very end of Part 1, that reflect the great Polish composer’s influence. I was very happy to hear that the women’s choir of the Szymanowski Philharmonic have a good blend; in previous times, Eastern European women’s choruses often sounded shrill and nasal.

Palester’s orchestral palette, at least in this work, tends towards bright sonorities à la Stravinsky as well. The orchestra also includes a piano, an unusual touch. Much of the choral writing is lyrical, although in a modern manner since the harmonies used are sometimes quite exotic. There’s a remarkable passage at about 2:30 into Part 3 that sounds as if it were written by Szymanowski himself, with harp and lower strings added to the mix. In Part 6, the continuous motor rhythms seem to have predated the minimalist movement (as did the contemporary music of Orff). Texts of all three works are included in the booklet but, unfortunately, only in Polish.

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was considered one of Poland’s great contemporary poets; he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Palester, who knew him personally, chose the poems entitled Faith, Hope, and Love. Written during the war, these poems were, as Miłosz admitted, “an attempt to describe the world as it should be, seen through the eyes of children, unlike the world of horror I had been through,” though he admitted that their simplicity was “slightly misleading.”

If anything, the 3 Poems are written in an even more advanced style, sort of a floating atonal impressionist style—closer to Szymanowski or even early Schoenberg that to Stravinsky here (the harmonic language reminded me of Erwärtung), but also showing a slight influence of more contemporary composers like Crumb and Ligeti. The music hovers around tonality but never quite settles in it, and the vocal line is not entirely grateful for the voice, but pushes it in various edgy directions, evidently trying to bring out in a semi-subtle way the horror of the war while retaining Miłosz’ original words. Once again, I was delighted to hear that the soprano, Iwona Hossa, has a full, beautiful lyric voice lacking the edginess of such earlier Polish sopranos as Teresa Kubiak.

Letters to Mother was based on actual letters written by Juliusz Słowacki, reduced here to those texts that reflected Palester’s own mood, a combination of searing sadness and peace. Although the music is again rather atonal, the orchestral part is more “open,” less dense and less dissonant than the previous two works. As a result, the baritone vocal line is somewhat simpler and less edgy, though still somewhat challenging due to Palester’s unusual note choices. The liner notes indicate that much of the music is built on the three-note sequence of G#, B and G, which the composer called a “death motif.” Again, to quote the liner notes, “The sadness the composer felt, undoubtedly compounded by the death of his beloved wife Barbara and a growing sense of loneliness, found its perfect expression in the words of Słowacki, who wrote: Thus when you think that our fate is inevitable, think that in fact we are the saddest group of people, with no hope and no shocks to the heart.” This work was not premiered until 1994, five years after the composer’s death, ironically in a then-free Poland that Palester did not live to return to. Baritone Szymon Komosa has a fine, rich, somewhat dark voice that is perfectly suited to the music and the words.

All three of these pieces are recorded here for the first time. They make a great introduction to the work of a composer who has, unfortunately, fallen through the cracks, one who is every bit as deserving of revival as the many “entrarte musik” composers we seem to be inundated with nowadays. Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Lionel Handy Plays British Cello Sonatas

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SMYTH: Cello Sonata in c min. MACONCHY: Divertimento. LUTYENS: 9 Bagatelles. CLARKE: Rhapsody / Lionel Handy, cel; Jennifer Hughes, pno / Lyrita SRCD 383

In this interesting set, British cellist Lionel Handy plays not only cello works by British composers but, more specifically, British women composers, of whom the only well-known ones are Ethel Smyth and Rebecca Clarke.

Yet although Smyth’s name may be known, her music always seems to be going in and out of fashion every 30 years or more, since the last recording of this cello sonata I can trace was made by Friedemann Kupsa on the old Trouba-Disc label about 1986. The music remains as excellent as ever, lying in style somewhere between Brahms and Tchaikovsky (her two idols of the 1880s, though she only met Brahms in person), yet with a manner of development and sense of passion entirely her own. When shown one of her chamber works (not this one) by his friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Brahms refused to believe that it was written by a woman, since his only experience in “women’s music” was in much more sentimental works, and although Smyth’s music was emotional it was NEVER sentimental. Indeed, I’d pit the development section of the first movement against anything Brahms himself wrote around this same period. I think I like Handy’s performance even better than Kupsa’s, though his cello tone, at least on this recording, sounds a bit “buzzy” if you know what I mean. Interestingly, both the theme (played in the minor) and the rhythm of the last movement sound more Russian—evidently her Tchaikovsky influence.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Divertimento, composed in 1941-43 for William Pleeth and Margaret Good, is often described as a “witty and offbeat,” using foreign dance rhythms to propel her unusual and sometimes tongue-in-cheek themes and development. Yet I don’t think she wrote this piece tongue-in-cheek; rather, I got the feeling that she simply enjoyed incorporating, for instance, a Latin rhythm into the first piece because it fit the character of what she was trying to do. By way of verifying what I just said, listen to the second movement, where the rhythm could be called “dance-like” if it stayed in a regular meter, but it does not. Both the meter and harmony move all over the place, and halfway into it the average listener will surely be lost. Interestingly, Maconchy seemed to play on this, putting pauses in the music as it reached the end as if to say, “OK, so you’re lost…here’s the way out of the maze!” The third movement, “The Clock,” plays in a similar manner with a different rhythm, and so on through the cycle. Very interesting music!

Elisabeth Luytens’ Bagatelles are also unusual pieces. One might almost call them ciphers—very short constructions, mostly bitonal, which play on a specific motif or rhythmic idea for very brief periods of time, ranging from 34 seconds to 1:19. Despite the fact that they are not in the 12-tone format, there’s something about their concentrated efficiency that reminded me of Webern, only not nearly as abrasive on the ears. Luytens was surely a composer who made every note count; indeed, some of these pieces seem to end in the middle of a statement, indicating to the listener that Luytens had said all she was going to say and had no intention of filling up space with folderol. For a female British composer writing in the mid-20th century, these are unusual and excellent pieces; even a few of them could be played in a concert, and listeners would get the point very well, I think.

We end with Rebecca Clarke’s Rhapsody, a post-Romantic romantic work that lasts nearly a half-hour. Much of the music here is comprised of typically pretty, lyrical themes, but Clarke throws in a few interesting harmonic twists and has the music rise to a climax every now and then to keep up listener interest. Nonetheless, it is not as structurally sound as Smyth’s sonata or the other works on this CD, although you are free to like it more than I did. Handy and Hughes certainly play it with a good deal of fervor and commitment. I should point out that although Clarke’s name is fairly well known, this is not one of her better-known works.

An interesting recital, then, with several ups and not many downs.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Eötvös’ “Three Sisters” Edgy, Stimulating

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WP 2019 - 2EÖTVÖS: Tri sestry (Three Sisters) / Ray Chenez, ctr-ten (Irina); David Dong Qyu Lee, ctr-ten (Mascha); Dmitry Egorov, ctr-ten (Olga); Mikołaj Trąbka, bar (Andrei); Eric Jurenas, ctr-ten (Natasha); Mark Milhofer, ten (Doctor); Krešimir Stražanac, bs-bar (Tusenbach); Barnaby Rea, bs (Soljony); Thomas Faulkner,  bs-bar (Kulygin); Iain MacNeil, bar (Werschinin); Alfred Reiter, bs (Anfisa); Isaac Lee, ten (Rodé); Michael McCown, ten (Fedotik); Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orch.; Dennis Russell Davies, Nikolai Petersen, cond / Oehms Classics OC 986 (live: Frankfurt, September & October 2018)

Anton Chekhov’s play Tri sestry is complicated enough to start with—typically Russian in its plethora of conflicting emotions, illicit love affairs (lots of them), drinking and gambling—but Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös made it doubly so by setting it to edgy, complex modern music absolutely guaranteed to turn off the average opera-lover who wants his Tunes and wants them Now. Absolutely nothing in this music makes the least concession to popular tastes and, worse yet, he has committed the cardinal sin of casting the three sisters, as well as their brother’s great love Natasha, as countertenors instead of female singers.

I myself was worried about the latter since I generally can’t stand countertenors, but not only are all three of them excellent singers, musicians and actors, but in many places I couldn’t even tell that they were countertenors, so interesting and pleasant were their voices (particularly David DQ Lee). There is little or no countertenor “hoot” in their singing, and all in all I was very pleased with the results.

As for the music, well, you’re on your own there. Eötvös evidently views the Chekhov play the same way I do, as a confused, tangled mess of personal relationships and inner power struggles, and thus wrote somewhat confused, tangled music that is constantly edgy. I mean, really now, do you really want an opera based on Three Sisters to be full of Romantic music, lovely tunes etc. when the plot is such a simmering stew of envy and selfishness? I mean, after all, these “three sisters” are about as pleasant as Rashida Tlaib, Elisabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton at a Young Republicans rally. They pretty much hate anyone and anything that doesn’t agree with them and, at the very least on a subliminal level, would like to eradicate those who don’t.

The one downside I had to reviewing this recording was the lack of a libretto. This was a real handicap in a plot as complex and knotty as this one, and I had a difficult time following the sequence of events, particularly since the composer and Claus H. Henneberg simplified and rewrote several scenes for the libretto. Yet the booklet notes give some indication of how they treated this plot, which stretches over three full years and plenty of hormonal mood swings for our intrepid sisters:

The libretto of the opera Tri sestry, written by Claus Henneberg and Peter Eötvös, destroys Chekhov’s construction of time. It has lost its straightforwardness, seems to be more circular than linear and hardly allows meaningful goals to be derived. Nevertheless, the most important plot elements of Chekhov’s play are certainly presented in the opera, and some of them even several times. However, what in the opera initially looks only like a repetition of the story with a focus on the figures of Irina, Andrei and Masha, involves a complex de-construction of the order of time. Even a rough survey of the use of the textual material of Chekhov’s play in Eötvös’ opera (see box) shows that the opera not only takes up the plot of the play sometimes in non-chronological order and repetitively, but also fragments it, compresses it and dynamizes it. The very prologue to the opera constitutes a com-pressed form of the final words by the three sisters in the play, so that the real ending now symbolically becomes the beginning in the opera.

The plot of Sequence I does not quite follow the chronology laid down by Chekhov, but in the opera, too, Irina’s story can be understood in a possible time sequence: she wishes for a life with work, is courted by two men, declares herself willing to marry and finally loses her betrothed to the duel between the two men. However, this reconstruction of Irina’s story refers to the text after No. 6 until the end of the sequence. By contrast, the montage of the textual material in Nos. 2 to 5 of the opera by no means permits a logical construction of the plot. For the text presented here seems to be without any order because the information conveyed cannot yet be conclusively understood in an overall context. The text plays for time by delaying the beginning of the comprehensible story, which ultimately serves to stretch time.

Sequence II, devoted to Andrei, fragments the story of the figure depicted by Chekhov. Andrei’s path from the dreamer to the resigned and cuckolded husband and father, who, under the dominance of his wife, has become reconciled to the pettiness of life in rural Russia, can no longer be followed in the time scheme of the opera. The important stages in Andrei’s development are not discernible in chronological order, so his character seems static – timeless. The ensemble in No. 18 can be interpreted as a symbol of this form of presentation, aiming at simultaneity and the fragmentation of context. In conventional opera literature, the employment of ensembles frequently leads to the effect that the narrated time of the plot stands still for the length of the passage. Let us only think of the corresponding passages from the famous quintets or sextets by Rossini or Donizetti, in which the usually conflicting emotions of the protagonists concerning a specific moment of the plot are expressed simultaneously and hence in the stasis of narrated time. The just under two-minute ensemble in No. 18 in Eötvös’ opera, in which Andrei, Olga and Masha do not take part, follows this tradition of synchronization and time standstill. The material from Chekhov used here consists of small elements of text from Acts II and III, torn out of context and assembled as a collage.

So there you have it. I hope it makes some sense to you but for me, who has never seen or read the Chekhov play, it seemed just as confusing as reading a synopsis of the original. My reaction when confronted with a plot as convoluted as this one is always, To what end? Translation: I really don’t care about these characters. To me, they’re just selfish pigs who think their “great intelligence” gives them the right to tell other people how to live their lives, boss each other around, and cheat on their husbands as if they didn’t exist. Perhaps this was Chekhov’s way of showing the undercurrent of women’s rebellion in a male-dominated society (in fact, I’m pretty sure it was), but to me the solution seems just as bad as the cause of their frustration. The real solution, which many contemporary British, French and American women of the time used, was to stay single, have affairs when and with whom you really want, but otherwise control your own life and stay out of the lives of others.

With that being said, Eötvös’ music really is interesting and creative. For all its atonal bent it rarely sits still but keeps evolving as the opera proceeds. I was also impressed by the unusual timbral blends he achieved in the music, some quite subtle and some not (the beginning of Sequence 2 sounds like an explosion in a boiler factory) but all of them unique and interesting.

The question is whether or not such an edgy, extroverted score really conveys what Chekhov had in mind. When the play premiered in January 1901, Chekhov felt that Stanislavsky’s “exuberant” direction had masked the subtleties of the work and only one actress showed her character evolving in the manner Chekhov intended. By completely rearranging the plot and infusing it with such edgy music, Eötvös appears to be following in the footsteps of Stanislavsky rather than Chekhov.

This is not an inconsequential difference. One cannot play, for instance, Hamlet the way one plays Otello. The former is a conflicted man fighting several demons while trying to avenge his father’s death and maintain his sanity; the latter is a fairly simple, heroic character driven by emotion who Iago plays like a fiddle. Iago could never have swayed a Hamlet: the latter’s more complex and subtle way of thinking would have demanded more proof before he acted.

But if one accepts Eötvös’ Tri sestry as an entirely different work from Chekhov’s, which in his rearranging of scenes and elimination of subtlety it most certainly is, the opera works. Eötvös has made this an edgy, psychological drama on a par with Lulu or Peter Bengtson’s The Maids. Does he have a right to do this? Certainly, as long as he makes it clear that the opera is merely based on Chekhov and not a faithful transcription of his play. And between you and me, I feel that the story works better when you let the characters open up their emotions this way rather than smothering them until they’re suffocating under the weight of their own self-importance and desire to control the lives of others.

Part of this also has a lot to do with the Women’s Liberation movement which started in the late 1960s. Women in 1901, in every country, were still under the yoke of men; women in 1998 are not in any significant way except in Muslim countries. Consider women’s voting rights. In the United Kingdom, women had no right to vote anywhere until two laws were passed, the first in 1918 and the second a decade later. In the United States, certain states and municipalities allowed women to vote as early as 1870, but it was not widespread until a national law was passed in 1920. We’re so far beyond that stage now that most women, including myself, can’t even think of it as having been a reality at one time.

This is not a digression. This view is central to the theme of Tri sestry. Even if Eötvös retained many of the situations in the original, we need to view them through the prism of our own experience. To watch a production of the play as Chekhov originally conceived it would seem, pardon the pun, inconceivable to we women today. It also makes sense that this production was updated to our time. Eötvös was viewing the problems of Chekhov’s three sisters in 1901 through the lens of three women, placed in the same situations, 97 years later.

So there you have it. I like it for what it is, and as a woman I respond to Eötvös’ view a lot better than I respond to Chekhov’s. Had he titled the opera Tri sestry 1998, I don’t think there would be any friction or confusion with the play.

Quite aside from the excellent and almost unbelievable singing of our three countertenors, the entire production is strongly cast and brilliantly conducted. Both conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his singers throw themselves into the work, bringing out great detail in addition to great excitement. Only bass-baritone Thomas Faulkner, as Kulygin, has a wobbly, unfocused voice.

Thus I recommend this work and this performance. It’s engaging, interesting, and wonderfully edgy in a good way.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Rita Gorr Sings Mahler

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MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde.* Songs of a Wayfarer+ / Rita Gorr, mezzo; *Kenneth MacDonald, ten; Orchestre de l’O.R.T.F.; *Georges Sébastien, +Pierre-Michel le Conte, cond / Opera Depot OD-11474-1 (live: *Besançon, October 8, 1969 [stereo]; +Paris, 1960 [mono])

For those of us who came of “operatic age” in the mid-1960s, Belgian mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr was one of our heroes. Possessed of a large, bright, cutting voice of great power and a wonderfully tight sound without a hint of unsteadiness, as well as a dramatic sense that rivaled that of the more famous Italian mezzo Fedora Barbieri, her thrilling voice drove us all crazy with excitement while being frustratingly elusive on records. Perhaps this was because she was signed to EMI, which apparently didn’t know what to do with her, and some of her records were only issued in France and Belgium: a 1960 La Damnation de Faust with Nicolai Gedda and Gérard Souzay, 1961 highlights from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride with Gedda, Louis Quilico and Georges Prêtre, 1963 highlights from Hérodiade with Albert Lance and Michel Dens and 1963 highlights from Cherubini’s Medea. Her only studio opera recordings during this period to come out in England and America were the 1957 stereo remake of Faust with De los Angeles, Gedda and Christoff, the 1960 Aida with Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers,  the 1962 Die Walküre with Nilsson, Vickers and George London, and the 1964 Samson et Dalila, again with Vickers, conducted by Prêtre. In addition, EMI issued one vocal recital by her, The Operatic World of Rita Gorr, an LP that, although only in mono, every opera lover worth her or his name simply had to own. It’s telling that two of these recordings, the Aida and the Walküre, weren’t made for EMI but for a then-reciprocal deal that British Decca and American RCA Victor had to release those operas on totally different labels in the two countries. All her other recordings either come from a much later date or were live performances from various opera houses that didn’t get released in their time.

Thus this unusual coupling of two of Mahler’s most famous vocal pieces, particularly Das Lied von der Erde, with Gorr singing is of particular interest since she never recorded either work. The Das Lied has also been issued by House of Opera as a download-only recording for $10.28 (temporarily on sale for $6.17), but this issue does not include the Songs of a Wayfarer. And the best part of this Opera Depot deal is—get this!—for the next week you can download it FOR FREE if you simply sign up to get their new release emails. I highly recommend this, even if you, like me, do not normally buy live opera recordings, many of which have poor sound. The occasional gem that Andy issues at his site, not only this but also Jon Vickers in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and other such rarities, are well worth investing in.

Although the performance quality is consistent in both works, the sound clearly is not. The 1960 Paris broadcast of Wayfarer is in fairly restricted mono sound whereas Das Lied is in surprisingly good stereo, with excellent balance and separation between the two channels. Scottish tenor Kenneth MacDonald, who partners Gorr on Das Lied, was a tragic case. Born in 1923, he studied voice with the excellent Italian tenor Dino Borgioli. Like Borgioli, he had a tightly-focused, bright tone, but lacked Borgioli’s honeyed sweetness. Yet he carved out an excellent career in England and France, singing primarily comprimario roles but including a fair amount of modern opera. In addition to Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Cassio in Otello and the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, he also sang the Captain in Wozzeck, Flute in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robin Hood in Campbell’s Maid Marion. Almost exactly one year after this performance, on October 7, 1970, MacDonald died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 47 years old.

I certainly won’t pretend that his contribution here rivals that of the best tenors in Das Lied, among them Carl Martin Öhmann, Waldemar Kmentt, James King, Siegfried Jerusalem and Burkhard Fritz, but it’s clearly better than a great many others. Closely miked, MacDonald’s bright tone comes across, perhaps, a bit too aggressively, but it has a nice cut, is solidly produced (no strain or wobble), his diction is as clear as a bell, and he phrases with some delicacy when called upon to do so.

As for Gorr, remember that she was never a lieder singer by nature or inclination. She was clearly an operatic animal, one who could send chills up your spine as Ortrud in Lohengrin, Amneris, Iphigénie or Dalila. Those listeners seeking subtlety of expression here on a par with Kerstin Thorborg, Christa Ludwig or Alice Coote will surely be disappointed, but she is not an insensitive singer, and that makes all the difference. She simply sees Mahler as a vehicle for her splendid voice to ring out. Yet if she’s a bit disappointing here and there in Das Lied (though she’s not too bad in the long, final “Abschied”), she’s downright thrilling in Songs of a Wayfarer, normally sung by a baritone.

The bottom line, however, is that this is an interesting addition to Gorr’s still somewhat narrow discography. Neither the Iphigénie or Hérodiade highlights have ever been reissued on a commercial CD (nor, for that matter, the Damnation du Faust, although there is a live 1960 performance with Jean Giraudeau available on YouTube), and that 1962 Walküre was very poorly recorded, with even such huge voices as Nilsson’s and Vickers’ sounding as if they were singing down the hall in a high school locker room, so finding good performances of Gorr in her prime isn’t all that easy. As for Sébastien’s conducting, it starts out a bit on the slow side but quickly picks up steam and, in the end, is pretty good overall. With that being said, the little-known Conte is even better in Wayfarer.

I personally recommend that you go and sign up at the Opera Depot site ASAP and download this recording for free while you can. It’s definitely worth hearing at least once, especially if you’re a Rita Gorr nut like I am!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Diverso Plays Modern Quartets

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PANUFNIK: String Quartet No. 3, “Paper Cuts.” BACEWICZ: String Quartet No. 4. SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartet No. 1 / Diverso String Qrt / Recart 0024

The Diverso String Quartet, a relatively new Polish group, likes to perform both classic and modern works, which in my view is the way ALL classical musicians should be, but alas, as we all know, this is scarcely the case. Singers in particular cling tenaciously to the old-timey stuff as if it was given to them by God, refusing to move any further forward than 1924, and most instrumental performers (and orchestras) aren’t far behind. Of course, most of this is due to the fact that their audiences refuse to grow up and use their brains, preferring spoon-fed tonal Pablum for the masses.

Indeed, it’s difficult to call any of these three quartets “modern” in the strictest sense of the word; the most modern of them being Andrzej Panufnik’s last quartet, subtitled “Paper Cuts,” which was written almost 30 years ago, but in the world of Safe Classical Music they’re still trying to come to grips with Debussy, Stravinsky and Szymanowski, whose first quartet, represented here as well, was written in 1917.

I was never a big fan of Panufnik’s music, and to my ears this quartet is typical of his output, a sort of mind game played with note spacing and sequence of tones, but in places he did create an interesting ambience. The playing of the Diverso Quartet is very bright in tone, which suits the character of this music.

Of course the Bacewicz Fourth Quartet, like so many of her works, is a stunning one. I have an excellent recording of it, along with her other six quartets, by the Lutosławski Quartet on Naxos. Diverso’s performance is quite good in its overall contour if a little lacking emotionally when compared to Lutosławski. Granted, they play all the notes and dynamics markings faithfully, yet there seems to be a little more caution and a little less emotional commitment in this recorded performance.

The same holds true of the Szymanowski quartet. I recommend the recording by Quatuor Joachim on Calliope, which also includes the Quartet No. 2. The Diverso Quartet holds a lot of promise, and I decided to publish this review despite my misgivings because I applaud their versatility, but geez, kids, learn to play with some feeling, OK?

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Schumann’s “Myrthen”

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SCHUMANN: Myrthen / Camilla Tilling, sop; Christian Gerhaher, bar; Gerold Huber, pno / Sony Classical 19075945362

Myrthen, a seemingly random collection of songs rather than a cycle, set to the words of several poets rather than one, was a pre-wedding gift to Clara Wieck, his bride-to-be. There seems to be no evidence that Robert sat down at the piano and played all the songs while he and Clara took turns singing them, but in my mind’s eye I can imagine this happening. A few of the 26 songs in this collection are quite famous and sung individually, i.e. Widmung, Die Lotosblume, Lied der Suleika, Räthsel and especially Der Nussbaum, but most of them are rather unfamiliar to most listeners.

As Christian Gerhaher points out in his well-informed liner notes, the cycle was named after the flowers of the myrtle tree—some red, some white—which in Germany at that time were considered the flowers of love, just as roses are by British and Americans. The spelling is strange; as Gerhaher explains,

Schumann explicitly chose the title Myrthen for the set. The name of the asso­ciated shrub myrtle was in fact spelt without an H in German at this time, but there were precedents for Schumann’s form in the writings of Goethe and Jean Paul, for example. Myrtle branches have been strewn at festive celebrations since classical antiquity and have often been woven into bridal garlands…The songs were initially written in random order, mirroring one another as if in a multi-coloured kaleidoscope, but Schumann later arranged them in four parts that were published as four separate volumes. On the basis of the final order, I am inclined to assume that Schumann was taking his cue from the content of the songs and in that way moving beyond any question of purely editorial practicability and marketability.

In an online description of the cycle Kerry Lewis states, “In Myrthen we find a clear contrast between Schumann’s two musical personalities, ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius.’ Those in the ‘Florestan’ style have a lively, confident character especially evident in Freisinn, Niemand, and the Hochländer lieder. Eusebius’ more contemplative mood comes through in Mein Herz ist schwer and Was will die einsame Träne? Schumann also confronts numerous other emotions associated with love and marriage, such as devotion (Lied der Saleika and the two Lied der Braut), maternity (Im Westen, Hochländiches Wiegenlied), loneliness (Die Hochländer Witwe, Weit, weit) and bravery (Hauptmanns Weib).”

To the best of my knowledge, this is only the third integral recording of the entire series. The other two are the recordings by baritone (only) Thomas E. Bauer on Naxos and another by Iván Paley and soprano Diana Damrau on Profil. Both Damrau and Tilling have high, bright soprano voices. Tilling’s singing is more impulsive and energetic while Damrau’s is somewhat more artistically controlled. The only song in which I clearly preferred Damrau to Tilling was Der Nussbaum; I just felt that Tilling was too loud in places and not controlled enough.

I suppose that there are a lot of people reading this review who are familiar with Christian Gerhaher, but this was my first exposure to him. He has a very high, bright baritone voice, even higher and brighter than that of Hermann Prey or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In Aus den hebräischen Gesängen, for instance, he goes down to a low A, certainly not near the cavernous depths of many a baritone aria, and can just “touch” the note with no resonance. Even such a similarly light baritone as Thomas Hampson can hit this note. In addition, Geerhaher’s diction is of the “high German” school, complete with rolled “r’s” emphasized almost as strongly as a Scottish burr. One critic for the Gramophone described his singing style as “ponderous,” but I found him quite lively in the energetic songs, more poetic in the quieter ones.

Being Schumann, this collection is extremely interesting as his impulsiveness and lack of predictability comes through in every song—note, for instance, the abrupt shifts of mood and sudden chromatic change of harmony in Jemand, not one of the most famous songs. Indeed, it was his individuality of expression that made him a great composer and Clara, who knew her music thoroughly but had a more formal, prosaic mind, merely a competent one.

In the midst of all this outstanding singing in which the words are pointed up and the overall mood is lively, it may seem churlish of me to not say much about pianist Gerold Huber, but to be honest his contribution is merely good in a professional sense, not exceptional in any way. He never sounds emotionally involved in anything he plays, though he does indeed phrase well, hit all the notes and plays Schumann’s written dynamics markings. You could just as easily have programmed a computerized piano to do the same thing.

There are several interesting songs in this cycle; one of my favorites was Hauptmanns Weib, which is as dramatic a song as Schumann ever wrote. Another was Weit, weit, whose regular, gentle rocking rhythm belies its melodic and harmonic sophistication.

All in all, then, an excellent recording of an oft-neglected Schumann song collection.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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