Mike Harley Comes Closer With his Bassoon!

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COME CLOSER / FITZ ROGERS: Come Closer for 4 Bassoons. FREUND: Miphadventures. SCHIMMEL: Alarums and Excursions: A Puzzle-Burlesque in 4 Polymythian Acts. F. MAN: Lament . BAIN: Totality. BURHANS: Harbinger of Sorrows. J. JONES: Yonder / Michael Harley, bsn; Ari Streisfeld, vln; Daniel Sweaney, vla; Claire Bryant, cello; Philip Bush, pno / New Focus Recordings FCR240

Michael Harley teaches bassoon, coaches chamber music, and is artistic director of the Southern Exposure New Music Series at the University of South Carolina. He is also a founding member of the contemporary music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound., so he has a firm commitment to modern music, which I appreciate.

Part of this album’s aesthetic is described by Harley in the liner notes thus:

Classical music being written today lives in a post-genre world. It is not uncommon to hear the influences of, say, minimalist master Steve Reich, avant-garde icon John Cage, and Led Zeppelin converge on the same program or even within a single piece.

But this is where Harley and I have our strong differences of opinion. I, for one, don’t want to hear rock music influence in ANY music, classical or jazz, because it doesn’t fit. Both types of music are, or at least should be, music that develops, whether it be from the composer’s pen or the spontaneous improvisation of a jazz soloist, but rock music doesn’t develop at all, not even when one of their whiny electric guitarists start “jammin’” during a piece. The reason is, as jazz great Roy Eldridge pointed out in the 1960s, “The jazz beat goes somewhere. The rock beat stays somewhere,” thus within those parameters you simply can’t have it both ways. You either stagnate rhythmically and musically or you move forward and develop. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Yet liked some of the music on this album. John Fitz Rogers’ Come Closer is a case in point. Written for four bassoons, it is played here only by Harley, who multiple-tracked himself using a click track. This is very much a minimalist piece, and although I know that minimalism is really big with younger listeners nowadays, I tend to shy away from it for the same reason I shy away from rock: it doesn’t really develop, though it does change a little more often. This piece is a perfect example. It’s ebullient and fun to hear but doesn’t really “say” anything; it’s just a collection of staccato notes bouncing around in your ear. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad opening piece despite the fact that it went on too long (11:24).

By contrast, Stephan Freund’s Miphadventures is a more lyrical work with a tiny bit of a blues-jazz feel in the piano part. The piece is divided into two sections, titled “Longingly” and “Excited,” the second of these featuring some unusual time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/8. Yet this piece works in exactly the way that Come Closer does not, in that the music is well and interestingly developed. Incidentally, there haven’t been many players who could swing on the bassoon, so Harley is scarcely alone there. The only one I have heard make the bassoon swing were multi-reed player Adrian Rollini, who was also the only man who could make the bass saxophone and the “hot fountain pen” swing, as well as Frank Tiberi and Ray Pizzi. Fortunately, Harley has the assistance on this one of pianist Philip Bush, and he is excellent at what jazz musicians used to call the “slow drag” beat. I found this to be an exceptionally interesting piece, well written and with real development both thematically and rhythmically. Harley does a good job on it. This piece is over 13 minutes long, but there’s not a wasted second in it.

Next up is Carl Schimmel’s Alarums and Misadventures, which starts with a loud, ominous piano flourish before moving into slower, moodier music, in some of which the bassoon slithers around through chromatic glissandi. Again, pianist Bush helps to push bassoonist Harley through edgy syncopated passages with aplomb. This one sounds a little like the Loch Ness monster suddenly ingesting a wad of LSD and not knowing how to handle it. There are ups, downs, and even dead stops in the music. Some of it sounds organic and developed, some of it doesn’t, such as the serrated bassoon figures played at the 7:30 mark, but overall it’s a fascinating work.

Fang Man’s Lament is described as “The album’s most sonically adventurous work.” Adventurous it most certainly is, calling for the soloist to play buzzed chords through his reed in his entrance and other unusual effects, but effects are all you get in this piece. As Gertrude Stein once observed, “There’s no there there.” Or, as Charles Mingus once said, “You can’t improvise on nothing.” You also can’t hang a bunch of odd effects together and call them a composition.

Reginald Bain’s Totality for bassoon and piano combines the kind of modern music I refer to as “schlumph,” a string of edgy motifs, with minimalism. Some of it is interesting and works, but in several places I felt that Bain ran himself into the center of his own musical maze and couldn’t quite figure how to extricate himself except to move on to yet another theme or motif and hope for the best. Fortunately, pianist Bush’s excellent sense of linear playing helps to pull most of this together. This, then, was an instance of the performance succeeding where the actual notes on the paper did not. Divided into four sections, I felt that it was just a bit too episodic with no real affinity or continuity between the episodes. The occasional detours into minimalism didn’t really help.

Caleb Burhans’ Harbinger of Sorrows is a real piece with a genuine theme and real development. Indeed, as the piece went on, the sad, slow melodic line underwent some intriguing and ingenious permutations while the repeated piano chord sequence seemed to remain the same.

We end our excursion with Jesse Jones’ Yonder for bassoon, piano and string trio. This was clearly one of the most complex and well-developed pieces on the album. As the notes put it, it traverses “Sacred-Harp hymnody and balletic dance rhythms, across lugubrious pits of Stravinskian mud, to ecstatic major-chord vistas and back again.” Clearly a well-thought-out and well-developed piece in addition to having some genuinely exciting moments. I especially liked the section beginning around the five-minute mark, in which Jones wrote some genuinely inspired polyphony using the five instruments that weaves in and around itself. This is good stuff!

A mixed review, then, as is so often the case with modern music CDs, but the good pieces are clearly worth hearing, and hearing several times in order to examine their inner workings.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Introducing the Toronto University Jazz Orchestra

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WP 2019 - 2EMBARGO / STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. BARSTOW: Medium Blue. TURNER: Over My Head. CLARIDGE: Apollo. MARSHALL: Summer’s Over. GRIFFIN: Undiagnosed. WESTON: Hi Fly. AGUDA: Embargo / University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra: Evan Dalling, Kaelin Murphy, Christian Antonacci, Ben Frost, tpt; Nick Adema, Vonne Aguda, Kyle Orlando, Charlotte McAffee-Brunner. tb; Charlotte Alexander, Ilinca Stafie, Fr-hn; Zach Griffin, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Griff Vona, a-sax/cl; Geoff Claridge, t-sax/cl; Jacob Chung, t-sax; Alex Manoukas, bar-sax/bs-cl; Anthony D’Alessandro, pno; Julien Bradley-Combs, gtr; Evan Gratham, bs; Jacob Slous, dm; Gordon Foote, cond / private issue, no number

Although the Toronto University Jazz Orchestra made a CD in 2017, it was as a backup to British jazz singer Norma Winstone. This disc, scheduled for release on January 10, 2020, is thus the band’s first outing as an instrumental group in their own right. Leader Gordon Foote, a jazz veteran with 26 years’ experience as a Professor of Jazz Studies at McGill University, has molded them into a stunning unit that can easily compete with the best professional jazz orchestras in both Canada and the U.S.

At 19 pieces, the sheer size of the band might seem to be overwhelming, but of course it’s all in the arranging. As Glenn Miller once said, four trumpets, four trombones and five reeds give you a lot of leeway to mix and match your players to create interesting timbres, and here the UT forces also includes two French horns à la Claude Thornhill in addition to the standard rhythm section. And this is one of the things that impressed me the most about this group: their arrangements. They aren’t trying to ape what I call the “Tonight Show Band sound,” which is pretty much what a good but generic big band has sounded like for the past half-century. The other thing that impressed me was that, except for the first track, all of the arrangements were written by the band members themselves. Director Foote has an awful lot to be proud of.

Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train (partly attributed here to Duke Ellington, who didn’t write a note of it) is the opener in an excellent arrangement by the late Rob McConnell. Trombonist Nick Adema is the first soloist up, and although it is a well-crafted solo it relies on some predictable turns of phrase, as does Alex Manoukas’ baritone solo, but Geoff Claridge, on alto sax, is more original. I really liked the airy texture the band achieves here. The second half of Kaelin Murphy’s trumpet solo is also quite good.

Hannah Barstow’s Medium Blue opens with a piano lick before moving on to an attractive theme played by Claridge. It’s so nice to hear a modern jazz original with a real melodic line; such things seem to have disappeared from most of the jazz I review. Turner’s score focuses on the brighter instruments, alto saxes and trumpets, but also uses an airy sound. A fine Zach Griffin solo is then heard, in the Paul Desmond vein but not a carbon copy, followed by a good tenor solo by Jacob Cheung. Brad Turner’s Over My Head is  played in a straightahead bop rhythm, but the melodic line takes some interesting chromatic twists and turns. The band’s airy sound remains a treat to hear as this one features some nice drum breaks by Jacob Slous and, wonder of wonders, a clarinet solo by Claridge—not a bass clarinet, mind you, but a real clarinet! Claridge’s ideas are again excellent though I found his clarinet tone a bit thin. Bassist Evan Gratham contributes a nice solo of his own. Adema’s trombone solo is more original and less predictable on this one, too, and this is followed by a nice half-chorus scored for baritone sax playing in unison with a muted trumpet.

Claridge’s Apollo is in ballad tempo but not a sentimental tune by any stretch of the imagination. It is, rather, a nice cool jazz piece in medium-slow tempo, scored for low trombones playing against a lone trumpet with a little guitar mixed in. The composer, who apparently is one of the stars of the band, gets yet another solo, as does trumpeter Ben Frost, but the real star here is the arrangement which is continually fascinating in the way Claridge mixes the instruments to create interesting timbral blends. I’ve been harping on this “lost” aspect of jazz band arranging forever on this blog; I can only hope that Claridge never loses his touch in this respect. Listen to the way he dovetails the French horns, muted trumpets and reeds together behind the latter part of Frost’s solo, using portamento smears to blur the tonality. Good job!

Next up is Summer’s Over by Jesse Marshall, a medium-tempo piece scored very lightly, almost as if the band was a mere septet. The contours of the melodic line are a bit more obscure in this one, but once again the composer has used his imagination in the manner of scoring. Good solos here by Chung on tenor and Charlotte McAfee-Brunner on trombone. There’s also a nice rising chromatic passage built into the tune during the break behind Chung’s solo and, at the 5:38 mark, Toshiko Akiyoshi-like contrasts between the clarinets and trombones.

Zach Griffin’s Undiagnosed starts out as another slow number closer to a ballad in feel though both the harmonic base and the scoring are original and interesting. But the tempo suddenly changes to a quicker pace, the melodic line changes somewhat, and the band is up and running. A sudden alto break increases the tempo even more as the whole band gets in on the act, with a blistering trumpet-alto sax chase chorus by Murphy and Griffin that left me breathless. At 5:38 we suddenly slow back down for a nice coda.

Randy Weston’s Hi Fly reminded me of a piece by Sahib Shihab when he was leading the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra back in the mid-1960s although it has its own twists. This is a medium-tempo swinger featuring some nice, laid-back piano by Anthony D’Alessandro and the five-man sax section scored beautifully for the middle chorus, which sounds like an improvisation that was orchestrated. Christian Antonacci plays a nice, Clark Terry-like solo over stop-time chords by the trombones and French horns. Griff Vona also contributes a very nice alto solo. The album concludes with the high-powered Embargo by Vonne Aguda. The only thing I disliked about this track was the obviously rock-influenced guitar solo; everything else was fine, particularly Aguda’s trombone solo.

This disc is an admirable outing for this excellent ensemble. I hope to hear more from them in the future!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Giraud Ensemble Plays Gulda, Prokofiev and Poulenc

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GULDA: Concerto for Myself.1,3 PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1. POULENC: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra1,2 / 1Mischa Cheung, 2Yulia Miloslavskaya, pno; 3Janic Sarott, dm; 3Stanislaw Sandronov, el-bs; Giraud Ensemble Chamber Orch.; Sergey Simakov, cond / Solo Musica SM 325

The is the second CD by the Giraud Ensemble Chamber Orchestra, a fairly new group of mostly young musicians formed in 2015. I’m especially heartened by their commitment to “a diverse repertoire ranging from Baroque to Modern, always placing great importance on making less known musical works heard.” Who knows? Maybe someday they’ll get around to Weinberg!

Here, pride of place goes to a really original and inventive piece by the late Friedrich Gulda, Concerto for Myself. As usual, the eccentric classical and jazz pianist had his tongue planted firmly in cheek when he titled it, probably thinking no one else would perform it, but here it is, and an interesting work it is, too, beginning with an almost Baroque-sounding intro for the piano and orchestra which rises to a grand tutti for the trumpets before the solo pianist starts playing an almost Vince Guaraldi-like solo that moves into a piano trio with bass and drums, which is then woven back into the orchestral ensemble, now playing more like Beethoven. Gulda was a lifelong lover of three composers in particular, J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, thus he wanted to put a little of each of them into “his” concerto. Even the individual movements have quirky titles: I. The New is View (…then Old is New), II. Lament for U (Aria con variazioni), III. Of Me (free cadenza), and IV. For U and U; And All of You, All of Me; For All of You. Eclectic was certainly Gulda’s middle name! The Giraud Ensemble does a fine job on it, playing with vigor and a good sense of style. Towards the end of the first movement, the piano soloists plays a really jazzy cadenza (written or improvised? Gulda, a good improviser, didn’t always write such things down) which pianist Mischa Cheung does a very good job on. The movement ends with another classical brass fanfare.

The second movement opens with a piano lick that sounds borrowed from Beethoven, but once the solo oboe enters to play the principal melody we are in the world of 18th century classical once again, but this time the piano part is written more deftly into the fabric of what the orchestra plays, and the string of variations is quite interesting, with a return to a jazz feel at 4:25 into the movement and the jazz piano trio format at 5:45, which later doubles the tempo for some real swinging (and later on, a brief quote from the Paganini caprice that inspired Rachmaninov’s variations). The “cadenza” Of Me features the pianist playing a few notes on the inner strings of the piano before taking off on a solo that straddles the gap between jazz and classical; then we dive into the last movement, which opens with a horn call, moves into a lively 6/8 sort of jig rhythm and then features the piano soloist in a syncopated version of said jig, with the orchestra falling in behind him. The piano trio again mysteriously pops up out of nowhere, this time playing a sort of calypso beat, and having a ball doing so. No one could ever accuse Gulda of having a “straightforward” musical mind…like Nadia Boulanger, his favorite music, all of it, was always playing inside his head. The music keeps shifting and changing meter, tempo and mood throughout the movement, yet somehow the thread of the initial theme is kept going.

The first movement of the Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony was a big of a disappointment for me, with the tempo taken being a shade slower than I like it. (Yes, I know that this is the written tempo, but I’ve always felt it was a shade too stodgy.) Nonetheless, the orchestra plays it with felicity and a light, dancing touch.

Poulenc’s Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra is one of his lesser-played works, and it, too, is given a fine reading by the ensemble. It’s typically lively, fun music, full of Prokofiev-like twists of harmony and Poulenc’s own sparkling wit. The piano duo of Miloslavskaya and Cheung have a ball with it, as does the ensemble. Some of the music in the first movement features rattling percussion à la George Antheil, which eventually quiets down around 2:45 for some lyrical passages. After a lyrical respite in the second movement, parts of the third and last movement are no less eccentric.

Except for the Prokofiev Symphony, a work that has numerous recordings out there, this is a valuable CD for the Gulda and Poulenc works, done up pink and sure to delight the open-minded listener.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Gulda and Fournier Play Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-5. 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” 7 Variations on Mozart’s “Bei manner.” 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein mädchen oder weibchen.” / Pierre Fournier, cel; Friedrich Gulda, pno / Urania WS 121.383

These famous 1959 recordings of Beethoven’s cello-piano pieces, once the property of Deutsche Grammophon but now in the public domain, has previously been reissued by Diaposon d’Or and Regis. They are reincarnated here by Urania, which has done a stupendous job of reviving Toscanini’s old broadcasts with far superior sound to any of the RCA-BMG-Sony releases.

Unlike the Toscanini releases, however, this recording wasn’t in need of any sonic restoration. It sounded great when DGG put it out originally, and it sounds great here. In addition, both the DGG and Diaposon d’Or releases are now out of print, so this would seem to be an ideal choice. Fournier’s cello is recorded better here than on either the 1947 set with pianist Artur Schnabel or, surprisingly, the 1965 remake with Wilhelm Kempff (a pianist I never could stomach, and still can’t…he was too fussy and mannered for me). Fournier, of course, is the star here, his wonderfully manicured cello tone and exciting rhythmic bite and drive informing all of these sonatas with just the right touch, but Gulda is equal to the task. Although his Beethoven playing was never as subtly colored as that of his rivals, it had great clarity, drive, and cleanliness about it that never wavered, providing an excellent backing for the cellist. Indeed, as you go through this set you may ask yourself if any cello-piano duo has played these sonatas this well. Actually, yes: not just Zuill Bailey with Simone Dinnerstein on Telarc, but also Maria Kliegel and Nina Tichman on Naxos, both excellent sets in modern digital sound. What goes around comes around, and although it took several decades for others to catch up to Fournier and Gulda, this is exactly what has happened. Unfortunately, the Kliegel-Tichman duo is available on three CDs instead of two, but quality performances are quality performances.

With that being said, Fournier’s 1947 recordings of the five sonatas are unique, and the reason they’re unique is due to Artur Schnabel. As wonderful as Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein are, there is no pianist on God’s green earth who played Beethoven like Schnabel, and this is a telling factor in this wonderful set. The way Schnabel “leaned into” the notes when he played, almost as if approaching the keyboard on an angle rather than straight-up from the top, produced a rhythmic vitality that goes beyond the surface excitement, great though it is, from Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein. Each note dropped from Schnabel’s fingers like pearls falling off a string, yet they bounced into each other, creating a continuous sound rather than breaking up into little beads as one might expect. Listen, to cite one example, to his upward chromatic run at the six-minute mark in the first movement of the first sonata. It almost sounds as if a ball were placed on the keys and rolled upwards chromatically, so precise is their articulation. To create a metaphor that I don’t think any other critic has noticed, it almost sounds as if Schnabel is playing a xylophone with a sustain pedal. In addition, Schnabel is more keenly sensitive to the soft passages that lie between the bravura ones that the other three pianists.

But alas, the Fournier-Schnabel duo never recorded the three sets of variations, so here the Gulda set is at an advantage. In addition, despite Schnabel’s wonderful playing, Fournier sounds better (mostly due to the improvement in sonics, but also due to miking) in the Gulda set, and in a sense he responds more acutely to Gulda’s playing than he did to Schnabel’s. Perhaps the iconic pianist intimidated him a bit, but I found his playing in the Schnabel set to be musically correct but lacking in both warmth and humor. Gulda acts more as support for the cellist than a leader trying to make him play in a way that was not natural for him. In addition, Fournier admirers will surely want his recordings of the variations, thus they will have to turn to Gulda for them. Moreover, the Fournier-Schnabel set, just the five sonatas, costs a lot more. There’s a version issued on the Classica d’Oro label that’s selling for $27.97 on Amazon, and the only other way you can find them complete is in the EMI boxed set devoted to Fournier, which is even more expensive. A few movements are available for free streaming on YouTube to give you an idea of the high quality of their work together, but only the last three sonatas are available complete. If you’re a paid subscriber to the Naxos Music Library, which I personally recommend, you can find the EMI Fournier set there and stream the whole series, but other than that I’d have to send you back to Fournier-Gulda. So, as Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Here we go again!”

But beware third-party sellers trying to jack up the price on this set. HB Direct is selling it at a “reduced” price of $26.99, but if you go to Urania’s own website, you’ll find that the asking price is €16,47 which translates to just a little over $18 American, which is even cheaper than Regis’ price of $20. Nonetheless, you should also be aware that the Bailey-Dinnerstein set is selling on Amazon for a mere $15.16, so it’s up to you. If you’re a Fournier or a Gulda fan, of course you’ll want this release; it is unique in both artists’ discographies.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Adèle Charvet’s “Long Time Ago”

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LONG TIME AGO / COPLAND: Zion’s Walls. Long Time Ago. Heart, We Will Forget Him. At the River. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Silent Noon. BRITTEN: Night Covers Up the Rigid Land. Johnny. Funeral Blues. BARBER: Solitary Hotel. The Desire for Hermitage. Nocturne. Sure of This Shining Night. The Secrets of the Old. ROVEN: Listening to Jazz. HEGGIE: The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cooky. Animal Passion. BOLCOM: Amor Waitin’. IVES: Remembrance. Songs My Mother Taught Me. FINZI: Two Lips. QUILTER: Weep You No More / Adèle Charvet, mezzo; Susan Manoff, pno / Alpha Classics 556

One may certainly think, as I did at first, that French mezzo Adèle Charvet was being tongue-in-cheek with the title of this album since so many of the composers herein are fairly modern (even Britten), but you have to take the generation gap into account. For us Baby Boomers, Charles Ives, Vaughan Williams and Britten all died during our lifetimes, but Britten, the last of those three to go, died in 1976 which is indeed a “long time ago.”

As a singer, Charvet has a rich, deep mezzo voice with a good timbre and, like so many modern singers, a slightly inform tone that spreads a bit on sustained notes, whether at loud or soft volume. But as the liner notes point out, she is “passionate about the song repertoire” and was awarded a prize for song at the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Competition. She gives us a very nice recital here and, wonder of wonders, her diction is pretty good—not flawless or crystal clear, but I could actually make out some of the words she sang, which nowadays is a miracle. She can also toss off a coloratura run or two, as she shows off in Britten’s cabaret song, Johnny. But my favorite song on the album was definitely Glen Roven’s Listening to Jazz, an excellent piece that straddles the gap between classical and improvised music. It also helps that Charvet’s accompanist, Susan Manoff, can swing at the keyboard, and they carried this over to one of the best Jake Heggie songs I’ve ever heard, The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cooky, which includes an imitation of a little girl’s play song with jazz interludes. Charvet continues her “cabaret song” sequence with William Bolcom’s Amor and Waitin’, followed by yet another cabaret song by Britten, Funeral Blues. (I’m willing to bet you that Peter Pears urged him to write these songs for him; Pears loved pop and jazz tunes of the 1930s and ‘40s. One of his favorites, which he often sang at private gatherings, was Miss Otis Regrets.)

One of Charvet’s strengths, based at least on this CD, is her wonderful sense of programming. She follows her string of unusual and cabaret songs with a series of lyrical ones: Copland’s Heart, We Will Forget Him, Barber’s The Desire for Hermitage, Ives’ Remembrance and another Barber song, Nocturne. Once your ears get adjusted to her slight flutter, in fact, you’ll find that you will enjoy this album tremendously. Her last cabaret song, Madeleine Dring’s Song of a Nightclub Proprietess, comes right after yet another lyrical Barber song, The Secrets of the Old. As a rule, I can’t stand to listen to “clahsisscal” singers do jazz or cabaret songs because they sound too stiff, but Charvet and Manoff get the loose, swinging rhythm exactly right in all of them, and that makes all the difference in the world. (Yes, even such great American mezzos as Joyce di Donato and Susan Graham sound too stiff, thought I adore their singing in other repertoire.)

Due to her good taste in songs, excellent programming and fully vivid projection of the lyrics therein, I grew to absolutely love this disc as it progressed. The back cover says that the program is56 minutes long, but to be honest, I completely lost track of the time while listening to Charvet sing because she had so much to offer. If you are a lover of song recitals, particularly those in English, this is a CD you need to get!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Julius Burger’s “Journey in Exile”

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BURGER: Dämmernd liegt der Sommerabend.1,3 Seliges Ende.2,3 Lieder im Abend.1,3 Ein Winterabend.1,3 Man soll in keiner Stadt.1,3 So Tanze, meine Seele.2,3 Lieder des Alters: Das ist das alte Lied und Leid; Der Tod; Der Mensch; Das Alter.1,3 Schlummerlied.1,4 Venedig.1,3 Hinterm Kornfeld.1,3 Vier Heitere Lieder, Nach Gedichten von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Der Irrtum; Die Namen; Die Schöne von Hinten; Die Küsse.1,4 Goodbye, Vienna (2 vers)1,3; 5 / 1Ryan Hugh Ross, bar; 2Siân Màiri Cameron, mezzo; 3Nicola Rose, 4Daniel Rieppel, pno; 5Julius Burger, ten/pno / Spatlese Musik SPM001

I’ve expressed my misgivings elsewhere on this blog about albums of music by composers who suffered persecution under the Nazis, not because I am unsympathetic—I had friends who also suffered this way—but because sometimes I feel that their persecution puts them all on a level playing field, i.e., if they were persecuted their music ipso facto must have been great, and not all of them were. But Julius Burger (1897-1995) was really a special case. Except for the fact that he had to resign his position as a conductor for Berlin Radio in 1933 due to the Nazis’ ascension to power, he not only didn’t suffer persecution but in fact had a long and varied career—just not as a composer.

A composition pupil of Franz Schreker along with Ernst Krenek and Karol Rathaus, Burger apparently also had a fine tenor voice and studied piano and conducting. In 1920-22 he was the accompanist for the great tenor Leo Slezak. In 1922-23 he was a repetiteur at the Karlsruhe State Theater, then moved to America where he worked for two years as Artur Bodanzky’s assistant at the Metropolitan Opera. He might have stayed there, but was lured back to Germany in 1927 to accompany the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink on her last European tour, then worked as assistant conductor to Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera. During this period he also obtained his position at Berlin Radio, and in 1933 left Germany for England.

Happily, he landed on his feet. In 1934 the BBC hired him as an arranger for their radio programs, where he initiated the genre known as the “Radio Potpourri.” Yet he kept returning to Europe on occasion until the Nazi invasion of Austria, after which he returned to the U.S. At this point he worked as a staff arranger at CBS for such classical “pops” conductors as Arthur Fiedler and André Kostelanetz. He also did vocal coaching for many of the great singers of that period, and in 1944 conducted the initial run of the hit Broadway show, Song of Norway. He then helped to arrange the music for the ballet Vittorio, based on music from several Verdi operas, which was the vehicle for Dmitri Mitropoulos’ Met debut in 1954. He then worked yet again for the Met between 1967 and 1988, during which time he composed more lieder and orchestral pieces—none of which were performed publicly. The only piece of his performed was his Variations on a Theme by C.P.E. Bach at Indiana University in 1984. When his wife died in 1990, the 93-year-old Burger visited an attorney to settle his wife’s estate and expressed his desire to hear more of his music performed before he died.

Several performances followed in the next few years, including his Cello Concerto at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Other performances were given by the Austin Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, and in Berlin before his death in 1995 at age 97. This is the first recording of any of his lieder.

Burger’s lieder is lyrical-yet-somewhat-modern in the Schreker mold. Harmony is essentially tonal but includes some Wagner-cum-Debussy chord positions and harmonic changes while the singer’s lines are melodic with a certain leaning towards modality. In a song like Der Tod he sets an eerie, somber mood. Der Alter, set to a text by Goethe, is particularly modern-sounding, with an angular melodic line that never really seems to settle on a key, while Schummel Lied is quite tonal despite some off-center key changes. One of the things I liked about this collection was that the character of the music changes from song to song; they don’t fall into a predictable pattern. The piano accompaniments are particularly virtuosic at times, as would be expected from a man who was himself a professional pianist of some accomplishment. This is clearly fine music that deserves to be heard in recitals now and again.

I’m willing to bet you any amount you name under $100 (I’m kinda broke) that baritone Ryan Hugh Ross financed this recording. I say that because he has a defective voice—wobbly and strained, though with a nice tone and good sense of interpretation—and in my experience, the singer who dominates an album of unfamiliar art songs but can’t sing very well is almost always the person who was the financial backer for said project. And guess what? When you go to the website referred to in the booklet, http://www.RediscoveredBeauty.org, you learn that the organization that sparked this project “was conceived in 2010 by Dutch/American baritone Ryan Hugh Ross.”  Mezzo-soprano Siân Màiri Cameron, who has a light, pleasant, attractive voice, contributes but two songs to the album. Both pianists are excellent. Ironically, the tenor voice of the 95-year-old composer, singing and playing his own Goodbye, Vienna, is firmer than Ross’. 95 years old, and he doesn’t have a wobble; the voice is placed better and he’s dead on pitch throughout.

Still, this CD gives us a valuable glimpse into the music of a composer who isn’t so much forgotten as simply one whose music wasn’t given much exposure. I’d really like to hear some of his instrumental compositions some day as well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Negroni’s Trio Goes Acústico

Negronis Trio cover

ACÚSTICO / N. NEGRONI: Let’s Go Camping. Monica’s Drums. J.R. NEGRONI: AIR. I Remember You. Puerta Del Sol. No Me Voy De Aquí. Cantando. Cycles. N. MORALES: Maria Cervantes. FRAGOS-BAKER-GASPARRE: I Hear a Rhapsody. POWELL: Tempus Fugit / José Ramón Negroni, pno; Josh Allen, bs; Nomar Negroni, dm / Sony Music/Latin 9075994202

Drummer and trio leader Nomar Negroni was born in Puerto Rico in 1981, but he and his family moved to Miami in 1995. After studying at Berklee he and his father, pianist José Ramon Negroni, formed their jazz trio in 2002. Nomar has also recorded with Arturo Sandoval, Ed Calle, Dave Valentin, Sammy Figueroa and Nestor Torres among others.

From the very opening number, an original by Nomar (I will use first names instead of last to distinguish between the two Negronis) titled Let’s Go Camping, it’s obvious that he is a drummer with power, but this composition isn’t just about slamming the drums. At about the one-minute mark the tempo relaxes and the beat becomes more diffuse as his father José plays some very interesting piano improvisations. The music then alternates back and forth between these two moods and tempi. Nomar’s drum playing is explosive and he has a good beat, though he is not the most spectacular technician around today. José’s AIR has a Latin rhythm to it but, once again, there are subtle tempo shifts, some of them quite complex. For the most part, bassist Josh Allen is a feelable pulse in the background, but on this number he, too, plays a very fine solo. (I couldn’t find nearly as much about José Negroni online as I did about Nomar; he’s either very shy or more than willing to let his son have the spotlight.)

Indeed, as the album progressed it was José who caught my attention most often, although I’m sure that he and his son have worked out much of these pieces and the exchange between them, which is all to the music’s advantage. Much of José’s playing and compositions use interesting devices such as circular chromatics (but not in the dead-end style used by John Coltrane), bitonality, whole tone scales and modes, all woven into a fabric in which one must listen very carefully to catch all of the subtleties. On Puerto Del Sol, José begins by playing the strings inside the piano, and it sounds as if Allen is bowing his bass very softly in the upper range of his strings. Mood and color are an important part of this trio’s function as a musical unit. For all of Nomar’s great power, he too plays very softly and subtly on this number. José tends to favor single-note lines in the right hand while feeding himself chords, sometimes just little tonal punctuations, with the left in the manner of many Latin jazz pianists, but I don’t mean to pigeonhole him by saying that. His improvisations and style are wholly original.

Noro Morales’ Maria Cervantes is quite lyrical, mostly solo piano and opening with soft, romantic chords alternating with double and quadruple-time single-note runs. This one has a very attractive theme and chord progression that finally reveals itself at the 1:35 mark. The bass and drums enter around 2:30, but don’t stay long. No Me Voy De Aquí is an old-fashioned sort of Latin jazz piece that reminded me a bit of Tito Puente. Allen has another excellent bass solo on this one, too, as someone (Nomar?) does wordless but rhythmical vocalizations in the background.

Cantando is another lyrical piece, either a waltz or a slow 6/8 rhythm, although with alterations in the middle section that keeps the listener on his or her toes. The middle section switches, however, to a sort of 6/8 march with a loping beat—more musical tricks for the ear to catch up on. Cycles by José Negroni is a clever re-working of Beethoven’s Für Elise using a similar opening lick but shifting the rhythm (and a few notes) around in the melody line. As it goes on, however, the musical material tends to move away from Beethoven and more into the world of salsa, complete with wordless singing by Josh and Nomar behind José’s playing.

The next two numbers are intriguing because they are reworkings of older pieces: the well-known 1941 song I hear a Rhapsody, completely rewritten in the first chorus especially by José, and Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit. Both are played as if they were contemporary compositions. The latter, in particular, really cooks and is infused with a strong beat that pushes it forward while José works the front end (on piano) and Allen the back end (on bass) with Nomar chugging along on his Pearl drum set.

The wrap-up to this wonderful set is Monica’s Drums by Nomar, but without liner notes (this CD has none, just a track listing) I have no idea who Monica is and why this represents her drums. But it’s a good, long, extended solo workout for Nomar, who plays the whole thing himself.

An excellent album, creative and interesting from first to last.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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