Prisuelos Tackles Stockhausen & Ligeti

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RICERCATA / SHOSTAKOVICH: 24 Preludes. STOCKHAUSEN: Klavierstück IX. LIGETI: Musica Ricercata / Mario Prisuelos, pno / IBS Classical 82019

IBS Classical, the Spanish label with imagination and a brain, has done it again: given us a thoughtful program of modern music played by yet another Spanish musician who dares to fly in the face of convention. I gave two awards this year to IBS recordings and only hope that the “big boys” at the Grammys or Grand Prix du Disque recognize at least one of their recordings for its high performance quality and innovative programming.

Aside from the musical content and quality, however, what staggers the imagination is that this, like so many recent CDs of “entrarte musik” banned by the Nazis, Fascists and Communists, this album is earmarked as “The Piano in the Face of Repression.” The reason I am staggered by this is that the New World Order is pushing radical Socialism in every free country in the world, even here in the United States, by radical politicians, media, and college professors as a “benevolent” societal form that will make things “equal for everyone” without explaining that dictatorial methods and the elimination of all those who oppose it is just as bad as the Russian starvation of the Ukraine in 1932, the earlier and later Stalinist purges of anyone who disagreed with his methods, the Nazis’ eradication of six million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, the Maoist purges of China and Tibet and the ongoing eradication of those who oppose the current Chinese regime. Socialism is not a nice or kind ideology. Former close friends and a relative of mine have posts on their Facebook pages showing them with weapons and calling for the eradication of anyone who opposes Progressivism, which unfortunately includes me. “We” must be eradicated from the face of the earth. So tell me, what’s the difference?

Shostakovich was never killed or sent to a Gulag, but he came close several times during his life. In the late 1930s, or so I’ve been told, he slept in the hallway of his apartment so that when the KGB came to arrest him they wouldn’t wake up his family. But for the most part, he was merely the victim of cruel head games played by Stalin to keep younger, more modern composers in tow, and the 1948 decree against “formalism” in music was just one in a long string of them. At least his father-in-law was not murdered in his sleep, as Stalin ordered for the father-in-law of Mieczysław Weinberg. As for the music, it’s pretty good but, to my ears, not as great as the later set of Preludes & Fugues Op. 87. There are too many preludes in this set that fall back on Shostakovich’s unfortunate tendency to write truly vulgar music, pointlessly ugly in its own way as was most of the music of Penderecki. In between these vulgar moments, however, are some real little gems, and it was these that I enjoyed listening to the most.

Prisuelos appears to be a pianist who, if he were playing standard repertoire, would gravitate to Mozart and Chopin. He enjoys the lingering style rather than a straightahead one. In Shostakovich, this can work to diffuse some of the vulgarisms, but overall I would have preferred that he just play the music straight.

We enter an entirely different world, however, with Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX. I always feel a bit suspicious of Stockhausen because he wrote so much electronic music, which in my view isn’t really music at all, merely the random excrement exuded by an electronic device, and he carried this aesthetic over to his music for more conventional instruments. In this case, however, there are islands of quietude in between his grating multi-tonal chords and pounding rhythms that make the latter a bit more bearable, and as the music continues one realizes that there is indeed form and substance to it—just not very likable form and substance. Prisuelo plays this with a combination of forceful attacks in the grating passages and more Chopin-like lingering in the soft ones.

But just as in the story of the Three Bears and their porridge, where one bowl was too hot, one bowl was too cold and the third was just right, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata is the real gem of this set, a piece that is modern and challenging yet in its own strange way fun to listen to. He uses what may be termed “extreme minimalism” in the opening, using a series of repeated, pounding A’s in different octaves on the keyboard, but in the second piece he is experimenting with a two-note sequence and, surprisingly, making some atmospheric music out of them. By the third piece, Ligeti is scattering a sequence of notes over the keyboard, even using something akin to a boogie-woogie bass line which Prisuelos plays very well. In the next piece, we get a Johnny-three-note waltz, and a strange one it is, too. Ligeti continues to play these little musical games all through this suite, which was written between 1951 and 1953.

In toto, then, generally good performances of some music not normally heard on CD. Half of the Shostakovich Preludes and the Ligeti piece remain my favorite moments on it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays the Odd Music of Harsányi

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WP 2019 - 2HARSÁNYI: 5 Préludes Brefs. La Semaine. Pastorales. Baby-Dancing. 5 Bagatelles. 5 Études Rythmiques. Vocalise-Étude Blues. 6 Pièces Courtes / Giorgio Koukl, pno / Grand Piano GP806

Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, a pupil of the Prague State Music School & Conservatory, also took part in master classes with Nikita Magaloff, Jacques Février and Rudolf Firkušný, and it was through the latter that he gained his first exposure to the music of Martinů. He once told me via email that “All the composers I’m interested in were expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s. I imagine them sitting together at a table in an outdoor café.” Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954) is yet another of them, but he differs from Alexandre Tansman, Arthur Lourié, Alexander Tcherepnin and some others Koukl has played by being Hungarian.

According to the liner notes, Harsányi was born on June 27, 1898 in Magyarkanisza, Harsányi started piano lessons at an early age and later received “technical training” from Zoltan Kodály. He was drafted to serve in the Hungarian army during World War I but happily survived; after the war, he composed his first ballet, Le Dernier Songe, which was performed at the Hungarian National Opera in 1920. He then moved to Vienna, followed by two years in the Netherlands and then back to Budapest before arriving in Paris dead broke (like to many others). He started looking for a publisher interested in young composers, found one in Raymond Deiss, and had his 1925 String Quartet recorded by Quatuor Roth for Columbia. His pieces for piano, of which this is the first installment, have mostly never been recorded before. They consist, the notes tell us, “of around 20 collections of suites, three more abstract pieces – the Rapsodie, Novelette and Sonata – and a few short stand-alone dances or occasional pieces.”

The music in this album comprises seven of these suites of short pieces; there are 40 tracks on the CD, the longest piece being the opening “Lento” of the Préludes Brefs which clocks in at 2:52. Harsányi was, like so many of the expatriate composers living in Paris at the time, influenced at a remove of the entire Atlantic Ocean by American jazz. You can hear a bit of it in the fast Préludes Brefs in his use of rhythm rather than the melodic or harmonic construction, and there is an entire suite, Baby-Dancing, devoted to his conception of what jazz was. Like so many of these composers, however (Erwin Schulhoff was another), Harsányi had no first-hand exposure to jazz, only dance music which he was told was jazz-influenced, thus one will look in vain for anything resembling really swinging pieces. Moreover he, like Schulhoff, had the bizarre idea that waltzes, tangos and something they called “Boston” were jazz dances. This is laughable to an American, because Boston, Massachusetts in the 1920s was one of the least jazz-happy cities in the entire United States. Bostonians of that period hated jazz, and said so in no uncertain terms, privately and in the newspapers. They considered it the music of “degenerates.” Only bandleader Paul Whiteman, who dressed up jazz in white tie and tails and hired classically-trained musicians to play it with a stiff, jerky beat at least until the late 1930s (despite having such jazz giants as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmy Dorsey and Steve Brown in his band), made any headway with Boston audiences in the 1920s-early ‘30s.

But to return to Harsányi’s music, it is charming, well written and combined the energy and verve of popular dance music with the Hungarian harmonies he had learned from Kodály. Of course, much of this verve emanates from Koukl, who in my experience can make even mediocre music sound great (not that Harsányi’s music is mediocre by any means). One of the interesting things about this set of preludes is that their scores lack any indication of meter despite constant changes; another is that, despite the strong Hungarian flavor of his music, he never actually used any real Hungarian folk tunes as a basis for his compositions. He did, however, throw in a lot of whole-tone scales, which were very popular in the 1920s (Bix Beiderbecke even used them in his improvisations), as well as “leaning” harmonies that shifted and morphed by moving a pivot-note within a chord up or down in the left hand while playing the melody in the right. In short, Koukl has done it again, rediscovered a neglected composer of great interest and, through his enthusiastic playing, made him interesting and vital.

The Pastorale No. 1 has a brief fugue in it and sounds more strictly classical than most of the Préludes while the “Élégie: Allegretto quasi andantino” is a succession of six-note chord phrases played by the right hand that move around in a scalar or whole tone sequence while the left hand provides a single-note bass accompaniment. Harsányi evidently enjoyed toying with different rhythms, sometimes—as in the fourth Pastorale (“Dance”), moving them around in such a way that any attempt to actually dance to this music might result in a pulled quad muscle.

Unlike Schulhoff, who used a steady rhythm in his jazz-influenced pieces but injected some very modern harmonic changes, Harsányi keeps his harmonic base pretty much the same in Baby-Dancing but continues to move the rhythm around in subtle and unexpected ways. Because of this, his “Tango” bears only a superficial resemblance to the Argentinean dance on which it is based. I’d still like someone to explain to me exactly what a “Boston” is, because I’ll be damned if I can figure it out other than it sounds like the novelty piano pieces of the early ‘20s like Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys (which Schulhoff wrote an extraordinary set of variations on), but Harsányi’s version of a Boston is again pretty interesting. One might say, in fairness, that Schulhoff approached jazz rhythm as something he wanted to incorporate without diluting it into many of his piano pieces while Harsányi saw dance rhythm as just another aspect of the music to work his imagination on. In other words, if you were to hire a highly skilled jazz pianist to play their works, Schulhoff’s jazz pieces could swing but Harsányi’s clearly cannot because he is constantly breaking up the meter into tiny little subdivisions, all of which Koukl plays clearly and with great verve but which, when added up, never quite sound like jazz. “Blue,” the most regularly syncopated of these pieces, does sound like hot ragtime at least, but by the one-minute mark Harsányi is again breaking up the rhythm in odd ways and, in the second half, using the odd harmonies to “lean into” the syncopations in a strange way. His “Samba” comes close to sounding like a real samba, but again, not exactly; rather, he created a sort of rhythmic moto perpetuo that continued throughout the piece. Everything was filtered through his own imagination.

I think the above descriptions are sufficient to give the reader an idea of what Harsányi was all about. In short, one should take his movement titles which are named after dances, whether tango or march, with a full bag rather than a grain of salt, because if you expect him to actually give you an undiluted march or tango rhythm you’re going to be disappointed and probably a bit confused. As brief as these pieces are, they are not for the faint of heart. There is so much going on in each and every one of them that it’s almost impossible to describe it all without taking up ten more paragraphs.

Interestingly, there is no biographical information about Harsányi, either in the booklet or at Wikipedia, beyond the early 1930s, though he lived for another 20 years. There is also no personal information about him at all. As far as I know, he was a spirit walker who just magically appeared in Paris, wrote music until about 1947, and then disappeared into the ether without family or friends. Well, maybe it’s better to think of him this way. His music certainly suggests a very odd duck!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Marcelle Meyer Plays Chabrier & Debussy

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CHABRIER: Habanera. Bourée Fantasque. Joyeuse Marche. 10 Pièces Pittoresques. 5 Morceaux. Impromptu in C. Air de Ballet. DEBUSSY: Préludes, Books I & II / Marcelle Meyer, pno / Urania WS 121.384

Pianist Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) was one of those fortunate few who happened to be in the right place at the right time. She studied piano with both Maurice Ravel and Alfred Cortot, giving her a direct connection to one of the great impressionist composers of her day as well as the greatest French pianist in the first half of the 20th century; then, at age 14, she was introduced to Claude Debussy, perhaps the seminal impressionist composer (though Debussy detested that term), who greatly admired her playing and encouraged her to play his works in public. Four years later, she gave the world premiere performance of Debussy’s complete Préludes to the enthusiastic delight of the composer. Debussy introduced her to Erik Satie, who also admired her playing of his works: at age 20, she played the premiere of his Parade. After World War I, she became the favored pianist of that group of French composers known as Les Six; she accompanied mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori in several recitals and, for all I know, also accompanied the now-forgotten baritone Eugene Berton, another favorite singer of Les Six. Thus by the time she was 23 years old, Meyer had a wealth of training and experience that were the envy of many other pianists.

MarcelleAlthough Meyer made some records on 78-rpm discs in 1925 and in the late 1940s, most of her output dates from the 1950s. She recorded some standard fare—Chopin, Mozart, Rameau, Scarlatti—but her most highly-prized discs are her recordings of French music, particularly Ravel and Debussy but also an album of the music of Chabrier. All were made for a small specialty label, Les Discophiles Francais (LDF), run by her friend, recording engineer and audio pioneer André Charlin. In 1949, Charlin produced the first European microgroove vinyl record, in 1958 a stereo recording technique, and in 1963–64 patented the Tete Charlin, a dummy head for commercial stereophonic records using two high-quality Schoeps microphones. He also co-founded Erato Records. Ironically, however, LDS ceased to exist the same year that Meyer died (1958), with the masters later sold to EMI France.

This two-disc set resuscitates her Chabrier and Debussy recordings. The sound is clean and clear; you can almost hear the sound of the keys being depressed on the keyboard and the felt-covered hammers striking the strings of her piano. This may not have been the ideal way of recording a pianist who was a Cortot pupil since both pianists had a rich, deep-in-the-keys manner of playing, but it’s certainly better than trying to hear how she “really” played the piano from her 1925 recordings. My judgment was that she had a slightly softer approach to music than Cortot, but not by much: there is great tensile strength in her performances, and she was clearly a musician who understood the structure of the music she played. Like Cortot, she adopted the German manner of slightly pressing the beat forward at all times in order to clarify the structure, and if she did not quite equal him as a colorist (but again, this may be due to microphone placement) she clearly played with much more color than most modern pianists. (I would say “all,” but there are some outstanding pianists still out there, among them Michael Korstick, Giorgio Koukl, Janina Gerl and Joanna MacGregor, who also play with a good sense of color) and thus gave us the best of both worlds in French music particularly. I strongly urge you to listen to Meyer play this music and that of Ravel to gain an understanding of how most of those early-20th-century French composers wanted their music to sound. It has strength but does not pound the keyboard the way Martha Argerich and Idil Biret do. Her playing has both form and “soul.”

This, I think, may be more important in the music of Chabrier, a composer she clearly could not have known since he died three years before she was born but who was considered a fine composer by the more modern ones she knew. (Even Satie, who liked very little music besides his own, had nice things to say of Chabrier.) Despite her somewhat softer touch, Meyer gives us no-nonsense, non-Romantic Chabrier, and this is a quality we hear again in her performances of Ravel and Debussy. In short, there are things in her approach that strike us as modern rather than old-school. Small wonder that she was admired by the more advanced French composers of her day. For those of you taking notes, this is what “historically-informed performance” really sounds like. It wasn’t at all as we hear so many modern French pianists, such as Jean-Yves Thibaudet or Jean-Efflam Bevouzet, play French music nowadays—a style hailed by critics, mostly British, as quintessentially French when in fact it is only quintessentially Romantic French and not at all appropriate in Debussy or Ravel. How many years have I been insisting that such pianists as Gieseking, Benedetti and Korstick gave us Debussy in the proper style? Or that, at the very least, one should listen to Debussy’s own recordings to understand how he wanted his music to go? FYI, Debussy also played his own music in a more linear and direct, but well-colored, style that neither Thibaudet nor Bevouzet understand. (Similarly, Anne Queffélec is one of the few modern-day French pianists who really understand how to play Satie.) Listen, for instance, to the way Meyer plays Chabrier’s “Danse villageoise” from his 10 Pièces pittoresques for a perfect example of what I mean. The playing is crisp and clean, with none of that lingering nonsense we constantly hear from Thibaudet or Bavouzet, yet Meyer provides a half-dozen different dynamic shades in the middle section. Subtlety, folks, not an exaggerated dragging out of your intent.

In fact, I would compare Meyer more closely to Gieseking than Cortot, which is not bad, merely different. By the way, another thing that makes her playing sound less rich than I think she really played is the instrument she uses. It has a crisp sound, one might say closer to a Baldwin than to a Steinway grand or a Bösendorfer (the most beautiful-sounding piano in the world).

I’m sure that many listeners will dislike her performances of the Debussy Préludes, claiming that they sound “rushed.” They certainly bear no resemblance to the way Thibaudet or Bavouzet play them, but her performances of “Danseuses de Delphes,” “Le vent dans de plaine,” “La cathedral engloutie” and “Minstrels” are remarkably similar to the way Debussy recorded them.

If I have any complaint about this release, it is that the sound quality remains somewhat boxy and dry. A little judicious treble boost and a bit of reverb would work wonders for these old recordings, but just having them is a treat in itself. Viva la Marcelle!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Camilla Tilling’s New Recital

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JUGENDSTIL / KORNGOLD: Einfache Lieder: Schneeglöcken; Das Ständchen; Liebesbriefchen; Sommer. Fünf Lieder, No. 1: Glückwunsch. BERG: Sieben frühe lieder. ZEMLINSKY: Walzer-Gesänge. SCHOENBERG: 4 Lieder, Op. 2. MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder: Nos. 1, 3, 7, 6, 5 / Camilla Tilling, sop; Paul Rivinius, pno / Bis SACD-2414

In some ways I’m out of the loop, and one of these is the rise of new Opera Stars, of which Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling is one. Until I heard her on the new Sony recording of Schumann’s Myrthen (see my review HERE), I had never even heard of her, and the reason I hadn’t heard of her is that she sings the Standard Operatic Repertoire (SOR), in which I have only a peripheral interest. I have railed in this blog against performers, both instrumental and vocal, who insist on focusing most of their careers on older music because although I like some of it, it’s passé. We’re living in the 21st century, yet to this day there are performers and audiences who are scared to death of anything written after 1924 unless the music is tonal, melodic, and contains no spiky harmonies. Apparently these people refuse to grow up intellectually. The publisher of one well-known American classical music magazine recently branded the brilliant modern composer Kalevi Aho as a peripheral figure whose music will be forgotten in 50 years. I, for one, would like to see certain older composers completely wiped off the face of the earth, Bruckner, Rubinstein and Korngold being at the top of the list.

But here Tilling starts off her recital with no less than five songs by the most pathetic rip-off Romantic composer of his day, and the music is as treacly and predictable as I imagined it would be, with but a few little harmonic transpositions tossed in for flavor in an otherwise undisturbed flow of banal musical ideas. But hey, she sounds happy, her voice is good, and the reactionary audiences out there will lap it up, so what the heck.

The remainder of this recital contains works by two of the Big Three “New Vienna School” composers, but don’t let that scare you away. Schoenberg’s Op. 2 songs are not at all atonal and Berg’s lieder are not that challenging, either, though they are 10 times more interesting than Korngold’s. Tilling does a nice job on them with her generic interpretive skills and crystalline voice. I should also give a kudos to pianist Paul Rivinius, who sounds more involved and interesting than the usual run of accompanists nowadays.

The title of this album, Jugendstil, refers to the visual art of the late 1890s and early 1900s whose “whiplashes” and “eels” (yes, eels!) first appeared in the tapestries of Hermann Obrist, later incorporated into Gustav Klimt’s painting style, but as annotator Alexander Carpenter rightly points out, one cannot apply the same terms to the music of that time” “As musicologist Carl Dahlhaus famously insisted, there is simply no analogy that can be made between sound and line.” The first and fourth of Berg’s Sieben frühe lieder lean in the direction of atonality without really arriving there, while the rest are quite tonal and melodic. Don’t upset the listener’s apple cart, you know.

I suppose that my somewhat acerbic reaction to this recital stems from the fact that Tilling makes no real distinction between any of the songs here. Regardless of the text, she sings it all with a smile in her voice and a cheerful demeanor, as she did in Schumann’s Myrthen, but except for “Der Nussbaum” which she sang too loudly and not with enough sensitivity, this approach can get by in Schumann’s songs. Not so much in some of the material here. To put it plainly, Tilling is a crowd-pleasing Singer but not yet an Artist from the standpoint of interpretation.

The aesthetic question that this CD poses is whether or not she has any desire or intention of becoming an interpretive artist. The late Jessye Norman was an artist even as a youngster of 18 years old; her artistry grew exponentially as her career progressed. True, she, too, stuck to older composers, yet she had a great affinity for Schoenberg and Mahler that Tilling does not yet show. Norman’s Metropolitan Opera performances of Erwärtung, and her studio recording of it, were masterpieces of vocal art. Tilling sings everything on this recital as if they were Swedish folk songs full of mirth and glee, and they’re not all supposed to be. Therein lays the difference. And yes, I know that Norman and Tilling have very different kinds of voices, but that’s not the point. Edith Mathis and Arleen Augér were great interpreters, and their voices were very similar to Tilling’s. Only in one of Zemlinsky’s waltz-songs (“Ich geh des Nachts”) did I hear anything resembling a real connection to the words rather than generic cheerfulness. I demand more than that. There’s just too much competition out there for me to praise this recital as anything more than a piece of good vocalizing.

I hope the reader will accept my comments as food for thought and not as a callous dismissal of Tilling. She has potential, but at age 48 the clock isn’t just ticking, it has done gone and tocked. Time for her to decide whether to grow as an artist or just sing pleasantly for the rest of her career.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Billy Butler & Al Casey Revisite

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GUITAR ODYSSEY / YOUMANS: Tea for Two. HANDY: St. Louis Blues. CROSBY-YOUNG-WASHINGTON: A Ghost of a Chance. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. RUBY-KALMAR: Three Little Words. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer. CASEY-BUTLER: Prologue for a Blues. Al & Billy Blues. WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife. HARBACH-HAMMERSTEIN-KERN: Who? (2 tks). CASEY-BUTLER: Al & Billy Fast Blues / Billy Butler, Al Casey, gtr; Jackie Williams, dm / Fremeaux & Associes FA 5689

Hughes Panassié, as most jazz aficionados know, was a musical reactionary who despised all arranged jazz, the Swing Era, bebop, cool school etc. His thing was to promote and occasionally supervise recording sessions of what he perceived as “true jazz,” which for him meant small groups of New Orleans and/or Chicago jazz musicians playing jam sessions. The most famous session he supervised took place in New York in 1938, in which he revived the career of New Orleans-born trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, who died the following year, but he continued to arrange sessions until his death in 1974.

This is one of them. Recorded in New York on July 11 & 12, 1974, five months before Panassié died. In this instance, he decided to pair the talents of Al Casey, one of Fats Waller’s guitarists, with Billy Butler, whose experience had included accompanying Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Smith and Dizzy Gillespie. For Panassié, this was a pretty daring step, but as you can see from the song titles they stuck to old standards from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s with the exception of the two duo-improvisations. Panassié was ecstatic about the results, stating that “This record is the only one of its kind. You won’t have heard one even remotely like this, not ever… It teems with beautiful music, and the more you hear it, the more you’ll love it.” So let’s see if we’ll love it as much as Mr. Panassié, shall we?

The picking is clean and, for the most part, the tunes are bouncy. It’s not difficult telling the two guitarists apart in their solos—Butler is the bluesier and more modern-sounding (left channel), Casey the swingier and more conventional (right channel)—but they do blend their styles together much better than you might expect going into this album. Casey is also more adept at keeping time with his chordal style, which was de rigeur for most jazz guitarists in the era before Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore. (Django also changed the face of jazz guitar playing, but he was as adept at playing those chunka-chunka chords as were Casey and Dick McDonough.) The one down side to this album is that, working with Casey, Butler’s playing is more circumscribed than normal for him. Panassié didn’t like bop or modern jazz and Casey wouldn’t have been able to adapt to it, so they kept the harmonies tonal and the chord positions set at normal.

Although Butler does throw some Django-isms into his playing (listen to Tea for Two) while Casey does not, the delights of this album come more from hearing Casey stretch out a bit (as in Three Little Words) which he seldom got a chance to do when playing with Waller. In some of these tracks, one is scarcely even aware of Williams’ drums, so quietly and subtly does he play. I a nutshell, Casey is stretching his musical vocabulary as far as it will go on these recordings while Butler is purposely “playing it minimal” so as not to throw the older musician off. As an interesting sidelight, the older guitarist outlived the younger one. Butler, nine years Casey’s junior, died in 1994 at the age of 66 while Casey made it to 2005 when he died of colon cancer at age 89, and had been active as a musician as late as 2004.

The album is indeed a relaxed, genial meeting of two outstanding guitarists of different eras, but to laud it as highly as Panassié did, you have to have fairly narrow tastes and an understanding of jazz that does not include extended chords or the more daring improvisations of Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow or Barney Kessel (not to mention Billy Butler in other circumstances).  It is, however, one of those lazy-summer-afternoon kind of jazz records that will put you in a good mood without sounding too hot or stomping when you want something cool and laid-back to listen to.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Ruby Hughes’ New Vocal Recital

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MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder Nos. 3-7. BERG: Altenberg Lieder. SAMUEL: Clytemnestra / Ruby Hughes, sop; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen, cond / Bis SACD-2408

Soprano Ruby Hughes is the latest British soprano to come up in the New Fashion: not by winning international competitions (the path since the mid-1980s), not by wowing international audiences, but by winning relatively local British competitions, specifically for Handel and/or Mozart, by singing minor roles in operas conducted by René Jacobs, and by performing Bach, Handel, Monteverdi and other dead composers’ music at Welsh, Scottish and British festivals. (Oh yes, she has incidentally also sung in Potsdam and Schwetzinger.)

To her credit, however, she has chosen “relatively” modern music for this recital, the only piece here written after 1930 being Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra, which after its 1994 premiere has lain dormant for 21 years before it was revived by Hughes with the BBC NOW Orchestra and conductor Tecwyn Evans. This is its first recording.

Hughes uses her pretty but very lightweight voice intelligently and with a good interpretation of text—better, I would say, than even some very famous and larger-voiced sopranos and mezzos of the past—but it takes some getting used to. What I mean by this is that we’re not quite used to someone who would sing the Priestess in Aïda or Papagena in Die Zauberflöte doing Mahler lieder. The voice is light and silvery but has no real “body” to the tone; she sounds a bit like Erna Berger or Elisabeth Schumann. Yes, I like the voice as such, but I don’t recall Berger ever singing Mahler lieder, and probably for much the same reason. A certain amount of richness in the mid-range is required to make a good effect in these songs.

But, as I say, her powers of interpretation are excellent and I really liked Jac van Steen’s conducting, which moves the music forward while retaining a light, airy orchestral sound. Then again, any orchestral texture thicker than this would undoubtedly bury Hughes’ ultra-light timbre. Her voice is, however, perfectly suited to the Altenberg-Lieder, much the same way that Bethany Beardslee’s voice was: a bright, laser-focused sound without the slightest trace of a lyric soprano’s low register.

Interestingly, I couldn’t tell from just listening when the Berg songs ended and Clytemnestra began, so alike did the music sound. This doesn’t mean that it’s entirely derivative music, only that it leans so much on the Bergian aesthetic that the casual listener could not tell it apart. Ironically, Hughes’ English diction is entirely unclear. As the late Gwen Catley used to say, “I cannot hear the words, neither their beginnings nor their endings.” Only an occasional one-syllable word like “watch,” “light” or “on,” comes across clearly; otherwise, she is too hung up on producing those light, silvery tones to bother enunciating her native language clearly. And here, too, her interpretation is far too mild and generic to bring Clytemnestra across with all the emotion and fire the character needs. Given a fierier interpreter like Cecilia Bartoli, and this piece could really make an effect. The way Hughes sings it, she might as well be reciting her shopping list at the grocery. And here, too, I felt that conductor van Steen was too detached from the music, conducting it perfunctorily. It’s a shame because it could have been a very interesting and involving piece.

Kind of a peculiar album, then, neither fish nor fowl as they like to say. Listen to it yourself and be the judge.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Serebrier Conducts His Own Music

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SEREBRIER: Symphonic BACH Variations.1,4 Laments & Hallelujahs.5  Flute Concerto with Tango.2 Tango in Blue.4 Casi un Tango.3,4 Last Tango Before Sunrise.5 Adagio.5 TCHAIKOVSKY: None But the Lonely Heart (arr. Serebrier)5 / 1Alexandre Kantorow, pno; 2Sharon Bezaly, fl; 3Molly Judson, Eng-hn; 4RTÉ National Symphony Orch.; 2Australian Chamber Orch.; 5Barcelona Symphony Orch.; 2Richard Tognetti, cond; José Serebrier, cond / Bis SACD-2423

This latest offering from Bis presents the music of the very popular José Serbrier which, except for the Flute Concerto, is conducted by the composer himself. One of the reasons for his popularity is that, although his music is decidedly modern in both harmony and rhythm, it at least has a tentative hold on tonality and is not considered too “far-out,” but as I pointed out in prior reviews of his music, this does not mean that he is not a good composer.

Indeed, on the present disc I found his Symphonic BACH Variations to be exceptionally well written despite moments of Romantic melodies tossed in, possibly to gain audience approval for his efforts. Pianist Kantorow plays with great vigor, which helps the music tremendously, and although I had no chance to hear this recording in its full SACD sound (I had to review it via downloads), the sonics are simply astonishing in their clarity (a trademark for Bis since its inception in the early 1970s) and realistic representation of the orchestra. There were portions of the first movement that reminded me of Prokofiev and of Bartók. The driving forward rhythm is incessant, yet Serebrier wisely does not lay into the percussion as much as Heinz Winbeck does in his symphonies, and that makes all the difference. The music is not very Bach-like; rather, as Serebrier explains in the liner notes, it is a series of variations on the letters in that composer’s last name, using B-flat for B and B natural, which the Germans perversely call H, for the last letter in his name. The four sections are played without a break. The last movement, an “Andante lugubre,” assigns a theme to the tuba that closely resembles the “Dies irae” theme from Berlioz’ “March to the Scaffold.”

The Laments and Hallelujah is a slow piece in a very tonal,. Romantic style that I found boring and predictable—which made sense when I learned that it was commissioned by a Catholic organization, “Saint Martha Concerts.” This is in your typical Classical FM station style. My cat Fluffy liked it.

Thankfully, we get the Flute Concerto with Tango next, a lively piece and the only one on the disc not conducted by Serebrier, but by Richard Tognetti with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Sharon Bezaly is a sprightly flute soloist and the music is both interesting and well-constructed, although in the first three movements there is no tango music at all. Near the end of the first, however, there’s a remarkable passage in which Serebrier plays 6/4 in the top line against 4/4 in the bass and accompaniment. When we do get the tango, in the fourth movement, it unfolds slowly and indecisively, tantalizing the listener with its hesitant pace. In the fifth and last movement, the music moves at a much more decisive pace but the tango is now transformed into something closer to a Russian kazatsky.

The Tango in Blue for orchestra is another interesting piece, much more creative than Astor Piazzola’s overrated “classical tangos,” in part because Serebrier alters both the beat and the harmony with interesting changes, including a slow section in the minor and very interesting orchestration. Casí un Tango is almost a lament, played very slowly, with a solo cello introduction and an English horn solo. In this “almost a tango,” Serebrier unleashes the full force of his imagination on this little piece, making it a modern masterpiece despite its heavy tonal slant. By contrast, however, Last Tango Before Sunrise is a piece of pap; it sounds like bad TV or movie music.

In fact, the whole latter part of this CD is so bad—particularly his mawkish arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s None But the Lonely Heart—that I couldn’t even listen to it. It’s a shame that Serebrier writes so much junk music when he obviously has so much talent, but he knows which side his bank account is buttered on. You can never go wrong writing down to your audiences and making them feel good with tonal Romantic goop.

Another split review. The good music on here is very, very good, but the bad music on here is likewise very, very bad.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Peter Lemer Returns…52 Years Later!

ESP5031 - cover

SON OF LOCAL COLOUR / LEMER: Cuidad Enahenado. C. BLEY: Ictus. LEMER: Flowville. Carmen. COLTRANE: Impressions. LEMER: Big Dick. SURMAN: URH. LEMER: In the Out / Peter Lemer, pno/arr; John Surman, bar-sax/s-sax; Alan Skidmore, t-sax; Tony Reeves, bs; Jon Hiseman, dm / ESP-Disk 5031 (live: Pizza Express, London, February 20, 2018)

British jazz pianist-composer Peter Lemer studied with Jaki Byard, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon. In 1966, he and his British quintet—the same lineup as above except tenor saxist Nisar Ahmad (George) Khan, who was ill for this session and so was deputized by Alan Skidmore—recorded Local Colour, Lemer’s only album as a leader, in London for ESP-Disk. The goal of this session was to reunite the original band to play expanded versions of some of the same compositions on the original LP, but it didn’t take place until nearly two years later. And it was done just in time, because Jon Hiseman died four months later of a brain tumor. The one piece not repeated here from the original LP is Lemer’s City.

The music is extremely interesting, a combination of structured compositions and free jazz. It is evident that Lemer has scored most of this down to the last dotted demisemiquaver, but has left several holes open in his charts for free improvisation, as much from himself at the keyboard as from the others. And interestingly, despite its title, there is nothing in the least Latin-sounding about Cuidad Enahenado; on the contrary, after a fairly long (3:25) slow introduction, the music suddenly takes off like a rocket with John Surman’s baritone sax leading the charge. Things get a little confusing aurally when tenor saxist Alan Skidmore plays opposing lines against Surman, but they soon coordinate their efforts in a duo-improvisation with rich counterpoint (and a few moments of pointless squalling). The only element in this performance I didn’t care for was Jon Hiseman’s drums. Although an excellent technician, I didn’t feel that much of what he played really fit the surrounding context. There’s a remarkable passage around the 7:30 mark in which Lemer and the two saxists indulge in some spectacular three-way improvisation at double tempo; then, at the very end, they all start swinging before the tempo collapses and the music ends.

I may be the only jazz critic on earth who doesn’t like Carla Bley’s clumsy, ugly compositions. I don’t find them remarkable enough in any respect to be interesting, and I particularly detest her “jazz opera” Escalator Over the Hill. Thus I had a hard time swallowing Ictus, which like so many of her pieces stays in one place far too long and involves some very clumsily-written phrases and even clumsier rhythms. This talented band makes the best they can out of it, but it is a one-chord composition and thus goes absolutely nowhere despite the frenetic playing of the soloists.

Happily, things improve in Flowville, a Lemer original where the 4/4 beat is nicely enlivened by the use of a loping rhythm in which an eighth note is followed by a dotted quarter in each segment of every bar. Skidmore’s tenor solo is rich-toned, relaxed and yet inventive. Like Ictus, Flowville is a one-chord piece, but Lemer’s more attractive melodic line and rich scoring lifts it above the average run of such works. The middle section, beginning at about 4:10, has a more conventional metric base and smoothes out over a flowing rhythm. Tony Reeves plays an excellent bass solo on this one, as does Hiseman on drums.

Carmen, which bears no resemblance to the famous opera, is a slow number with a decided Mingus feel to it. The two saxists, playing in unison, trace the odd melody line for a while before Lemer’s piano ruminates for a bit, leading to his solo over the bass and drums. The slow tempo becomes even slower as Hiseman plays a cymbal wash, then Lemer returns to finish his statements in an abstract sort of way. The horns return with the theme statement as the rideout.

John Coltrane’s Impressions comes up next, and quite a lively ride it is, with the saxists playing opposing figures to start with before Surman solos on the soprano. His ideas are excellent, but his soprano tone is strident and ugly-sounding. The leader’s piano, however, is excellent, burning his way through his extended solo before the two saxes return for the rideout. Lemer’s Big Dick is another enigmatic number with a melody line that uses a repeated three-note figure played in three different pitch sequences. After the slow opening, Hiseman kicks up the tempo and off they go in their own unusual way. Again, Lemer dominates the solo space with an excellent solo, followed by Surman on soprano and then Skidmore on tenor.

We next hear Surman’s URH, which also begins with a slow, enigmatic melodic line. The tempo is then suspended for a fascinating baritone solo by Surman which includes some flutter-tongue effects. This then leads into an interesting musical discourse between Surman and Reeves, at times with Lemer adding some commentary with keyboard trills. In the Out has some nice, very exciting duo-saxophone playing over the excitable rhythm section, and a very good Skidmore solo. After a very powerful Lemer solo, the band ramps up the excitement for the finale.

Overall, a very good album, one worth checking out.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Will Liverman’s Excellent New Recital

ODRCD389 Will Liverman & Jonathan King - Front Cover

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Songs of Travel. KEEL: 3 Salt-Water Ballads. HOWELLS: King David. COPLAND: At the River. KOHN: Ten Thousand Miles Away. MEDTNER: Wanderer’s Night-Song. SCHUMANN: Mondnacht / Will Liverman, bar; Jonathan King, pno / Odradek ODRCD389

This is the recording debut of Will Liverman, a baritone whose operatic roles seem to encompass much older, light roles such as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Marcello in La Bohème and Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, but he has also sung in productions of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and Glass’ Akhnaten, and he created the role of Dizzy Gillespie in Daniel Schnyder’s short-lived opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia. Judging from his vocal timbre, however, I’d say that he is a dramatic baritone in the making.

The opening song, “The Vagabond” from Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, is one that I know very well from the old Peter Dawson recording. Liverman’s voice is solid from the mid-range up, but in lower notes it has a loose vibrato, yet his timbre is rich and attractive and, best of all, his diction is crystal-clear. He doesn’t quite sing this song with the relish that one heard from Dawson, but then, neither does anyone else, not even Bryn Terfel. He does, however, color and shade the voice nicely. Obviously, then, he is a conscientious artist, and thus I have to give him points for that.

His accompanist, Jonathan King, is a member of the modern piano school. Everything is played crisply, with excellent technique, generally brisk tempi and a nice glitter to the tone without ever really sounding as emotionally engaged in the music as Liverman is. The effect is something akin to listening to Hermann Prey singing with a piano roll, but at least Liverman’s artistic sensibilities keep us engaged, and he floats a nice D-flat at the end of “Roadside Fire.” There were several moments in this recital when it suddenly struck me that there are parts of his voice that reminded me very much of young Leonard Warren. He clearly has the ability to both soften and open his voice up, much like young Warren.

When we reach Frederick Keel’s 3 Salt-Water Ballads, the recorded sound changes. No longer is Liverman’s voice recorded crisply and clearly, but rather swimming in too much reverb, as if he were singing in an empty high school locker room. Yet his artistic sensibilities remain intact; in fact, if anything his interpretation of the words in these songs is even a bit livelier than before.

On the downloaded tracks I reviewed this CD from, there was scarcely any space between the last of Keel’s songs and Herbert Howells’ King David, but by and large I found the latter a pretty boring song, with nothing much musically going on in it. Aaron Copland’s setting of the old folk song At the River has been done to death by singers over the years, but Liverman’s surprisingly soft, delicate approach to the song breathes fresh life into it. I had never heard Steven Kohn’s Ten Thousand Miles Away, but it sounded to me like yet another British “salon song” of the 1910s or ‘20s.

I was particularly happy to see that Liverman chose to sing one of Nikolai Medtner’s songs; so few artists sing them nowadays, and they’re generally excellent. This one is no exception, calling for the baritone to sing fairly low in his range. Liverman sings it with great expression, though his Russian diction needs some work.

The recital closes with the most familiar song on the entire album, Schumann’s Mondnacht. Liverman does a nice job on it, but I think he should have sung it a key or two higher since the notes he tries to “float” on here lie smack in the middle of his range and are not conducive to that sort of thing. Other than that, he does a nice job on it, the second chorus coming out more successfully than the first.

Overall, a very good first outing for this immensely talented baritone. I hope to hear much more of him in the future.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Perelman & Shipp Live in Nuremberg

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LIVE IN NUREMBERG / Spontaneous improvisations / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno / SMP Records, no number (live: Nuremberg, June 26, 2019)

This remarkable album, recorded at a live concert, presents two of the most prominent members of the free jazz fraternity in an extended improvisation lasting almost 56 minutes followed by a shorter “encore” lasting four. In their previous studio recordings which I have heard, Perelman’s playing has been tempered to some extent by the chords and structure that Shipp feeds him. This concert is no exception.

The pair begin in a slow tempo, playing opposing figures but with Shipp staying within the realm of slow, single notes and chords. Taken separately from what the tenor saxist is playing, Shipp’s music could easily stand alone as a separate composition. In a sense, this reminded me of the Stan Getz album Focus in which Getz improvised over a series of through-composed, jazz-influenced structures written by Eddie Sauter, except that in this case the structure is atonal, leaving more open for the saxist to work around. At the four-minute mark, both are playing sharp, staccato figures against one another, only to fall back when Shipp suddenly starts playing tone cluster chords on the piano, after which he moves into fast single-note lines. Shipp then explores the music solo for a while after the six-minute mark.

To a certain extent, it’s somewhat pointless to try to describe too much of what is going on because the listening experience far exceeds anything I could say with words. It’s clear that Perelman and Shipp have created their own system of musical discourse which is almost a language, or at least a dialect, unto itself, and any attempt to describe what is going on would entail a technical description of the music that I’m sure is over the heads of most of my readers. As a summary of what goes on in this long piece, I can only say that the duo explores not only tonal relationships that only exist elsewhere in the most avant-garde music of certain modern classical composers but is only occasionally found in the work of avant-garde jazz musicians. Perhaps we shouldn’t even call this music “avant-garde,” for what does that really mean? In their time and place, Earl Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, George Russell and Paul Bley were all avant-garde. What I can say, which might make sense to most of my readers, is that Perelman’s improvisations, though sometimes out on a limb from which he climbs back gingerly, are for the most part less contrived than those of John Coltrane when he just played those little circular chromatic figures out of Nicholas Slonimsky’s exercise book. Perelman has found what Coltrane was seeking, a way of playing “all the notes” without trying to play them all at once. There are moments here where he plays the blues and others where he plays in a surprisingly ballad-like fashion with a warm tone, and somehow makes them all fit together.

The fact that this duo seems to have found a musical sympathy so great that they are almost like musical twins, a yin-yang combination similar to Bix and Tram, Bird and Diz, or Zoot Sims with Al Cohn, speaks volumes for their being able to penetrate each others’ minds. They do not so much mirror as complement each other. Sometimes, it is Perelman who finishes an idea or statement that Shipp throws out at him, but most of the time it seems that Shipp simply seems to know instinctively how to best “feed” Perelman so as to get his very best playing.

In fact, one of the surprises of this set, as in any piece this duo plays together, is the fact that they occasionally find islands of tonality in their music. They are small islands, perhaps only little atolls, but they are there and act as momentary resting places for both the listeners and the performers.

In the four-minute encore, it is Shipp who opens things with single-note piano lines, which Perelman does his best to complement. It’s essentially an abbreviated version of what we’ve just heard, albeit with several differences in time and spacing of notes.

This disc appears to have been issued in a limited edition of 300. My copy, very generously sent to me for review by Perelman himself, is numbered 77. So there are at least 223 more hard copies out there to be purchased. Will you be one of the lucky ones? I hope so.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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