Toscanini Conducts – Without the RCA “Filter”

 

 

Toscanini La Scala Concert 9-16-1948

ROSSINI: La Scala di Seta: Overture. SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, “Great.” VERDI: Otello: Ballabilli. TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet Overture. MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL: Pictures at an Exhibition / Teatro alla Scala Orchestra, Milan; Arturo Toscanini, cond / Originals (no number) or Radio Years 99, also available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Milan, September 16, 1948)

Occasionally, I still discover Toscanini concerts I’ve never heard before. Some of them don’t interest me much, mostly because the repertoire is fairly common for him and/or because the sound is awful, but this one really struck me the right way because so much of it is truly superb—and a bit different from his NBC recordings of these pieces.

The main difference is that here, as in some of his Lucerne concerts with La Scala or the Hague Residentie Orkester of 1938, the engineers, while not capturing the full fidelity of the orchestra at all times, did one thing that RCA Victor’s engineers normally did not do, and that was to stop fiddling with the volume knobs as the concert was going on so as to change the conductor’s dynamics changes. It’s well known that Toscanini had the widest dynamics range of any conductor of his time, perhaps of all time, but that only a few of his NBC broadcasts and recordings had engineers who left well enough alone and let the recordings be captured the way he actually led them. Even as late as the 1954, in his broadcast of the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, they would often roll back the volume on his tremendous, gradual crescendo at the end of the piece because their microphones couldn’t take it, and more often than not they refused to turn down the volume to a level where his crescendo would not blast their microphones because his pianissimi would then be lost. This happened, for instance, in the experimental 1933 recording of his New York Philharmonic performance of the Beethoven Fifth. The quietest passages were almost inaudible. One might say Oh well, that was just the way it was in the 1930s and ‘40s, but that’s patently untrue. In 1938 they caught his Carnegie Hall performance of the Beethoven Ninth with perfect fidelity to his intentions, and there were other examples, though the minority, where this happened. The problem was that RCA-NBC had a bevy of sound engineers, most of whom were rotated to record Toscanini, and most of them either didn’t give a damn or had their own quirky ideas on how to record the orchestra.

Toscanini La Scala cover 2This concert, it seems, has been around for quite a while. It first popped up on vinyl in the early 1980s on Relief 822-2, then later on was issued on CD by Radio Years (99), Rare Toscanini (005) and the label pictured above, Originals (with no number). I just ran across it a few days ago on YouTube and have been listening in some amazement.

Ironically, the best-sounding pieces recorded from this concert were the two “bonbons,” Rossini’s Scala di Seta Overture and the ballet music from Act III of Verdi’s Otello (written for the French production and then dropped by order of the composer). These have a sheen and tonal beauty that rivals the best of the Lucerne-La Scala performances of 1946. By contrast, the Romeo and Juliet Overture and the two major works by Schubert and Mussorgsky have a drier, scrappier, less resonant sound, but they all have a more realistic sound than many of the conductor’s NBC broadcasts. I’m thinking that part of this is due to the fact that these were the acetates most frequently played over the decades before a competent sound engineer was able to get them onto LP and CD.

More importantly, the way he phrases the two major works is quite different in certain respects from his RCA recordings of them. Rossini’s La scala di seta overture is one of the few by that composer that Toscanini did not play or record for RCA; his surviving versions are a live performance and a studio recording with the BBC from 1937. This one, though a little more driven than the BBC versions, still has a remarkably light touch that makes one smile. The Old Man could indeed, even here at age 81, turn a phrase in Rossini like no one else.

The Schubert Ninth presented here is faster than his last NBC version of it, nearly as brisk as the 1941 Philadelphia Orchestra recording, but there are several differences in phrasing and in the way he brings out detail in the score. Also, even more than the Philadelphia recording which has the most amount of “space” around the orchestra, one can hear the dynamics contrasts between soft and loud passages with more startling realism. Even though the sound is drier, it’s not too far removed from his 1939 BBC Symphony performance of the Beethoven Fifth, the most dramatic and powerful of all his readings of the score. Yes, of course I would have wished that the sound wasn’t quite as dry as it is here, but what a great performance this is! Despite the fact that the post-war La Scala Orchestra was still comprised of at least half old geezers who had played with him “back in the day,” plus the fact that there are a few minor flubs in execution, the performance has a kinetic energy about it that is startling. The Milan string section wasn’t as bright as that of NBC, where Toscanini had stocked it with many Russian-school violinists who had a much more piercing sound, yet they give it everything they’ve got. In the first movement, he brings out the staccato clarinet triplets with even greater clarity than he did in any of his American performances or recordings of the work, and introduces some interesting rubato touches in different places. The tympani behind the orchestra at 9:49 is also more prominent; this was something RCA was always trying to repress because it made the needles jump, not only on their 78-rpm players but even in the early years of microgroove LPs (maybe especially in the early years of LPs, when the tone arms weighed something like a quarter-pound…I know because my family had one of these babies, a full-sized “console” radio/phono player made of ebony with a slide-out drawer which contained the turntable and tone arm, which used a ceramic cartridge).

The basic tempo of second movement is quite fast, though even within the very first phrase Toscanini is making modifications to the line in order to give it more breadth, which continues and in fact becomes even more noticeable as the movement proceeds. This is especially noticeable in the lyrical string episode that begins at 2:45. In the following wind passage, he does the same thing, in fact slowing down considerably at the 4:30 mark before picking the tempo up again at 4:45, and in the ensuing section he brings out the solo trumpet in the background with such great clarity that you’re stunned to hear it because, in most performances, you barely even know that a trumpet is playing there! (He also brings out a solo violin passage with equally startling results.) More rubato around the 7:30 mark, when the pizzicato celli lead into a mid-range string passage, then resuming his faster pace at about 8:05. All of this may sound to the reader as if the performance is too fussy, but to my ears it is not because Toscanini maintains the flow and continuity of the music. All of it fits together, and he almost makes it sound logical and necessary.

The third movement practically jumps out at you like a jack-in-the-box, yet it is phrased more smoothly than in his 1947 NBC recording of the symphony—and again, the tympani as well as the bass passages are clearer and more audible. Some of those descending string triplets may sound a bit over-aggressive to some people, but Toscanini always believed that in this symphony, as in the Second, Schubert was emulating Beethoven, thus he gave the music a Beethoven-like sound profile. There’s also a wonderful messa da voce (crescendo followed by a decrescendo) played by the horns as they lead into the trio theme. (As one critic said, “Until I heard Toscanini, I didn’t think it was possible to ‘play’ an orchestra as one plays an organ!”)

The last movement is simply rip-roaring, closer in tempo and drive to the 1941 Philadelphia recording than to either of his NBC Symphony recordings—but again, you actually hear more of what he is doing because the sonics, although somewhat dry, are still better than in 1941. The orchestra plays with feverish glee, if one can imagine such a thing: a perfect example of the musicians giving 110%, and they’re as tight in their ensemble playing as you can possibly imagine. (So far as I know, this is the only Schubert performance by Toscanini-La Scala captured for posterity.) The wind and soft string passages in the middle are marred by crackle and surface noise, unfortunately the worst part of the entire concert, but keep tuned, folks, because you’re never going to hear playing like this again in your lives. The end section, with the alternating basses and trumpets leading to the finale, is absolutely hair-raising.

As mentioned earlier, the Verdi “Ballabilli” is played with a wonderful smoothness that is better than the NBC broadcast version, “bouncier” and less hard-pressed, and the sonics are far superior. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture is slower than his 1946 RCA recording but not quite as spacious as the 1953 account. As in the case of the Schubert Ninth, Toscanini poured emotion galore into the music but removed all traces of sentimentality, and it is exactly this that makes some listeners consider his music-making “brutal” because they WANT sentimentality—and he would never, ever give it to them. Even in the opening section, which is all legato and long-held string (and wind) notes, he refused to buckle to sentiment. Toscanini viewed this overture as an extension of the Berlioz Romeo et Juliette, full of drama and contrasting moods. He does not “cheat” the listener when he comes to the love theme, but neither does he play it cloyingly. For him, it is an oasis of calm and beauty between the two storms before and after. He does not linger, and he keeps slightly pressing the beat forward. And again, you can hear the tympani, softly but very clearly, in the background. Very often, even in digital stereo recordings, you are just barely aware of the tymps at all in this section. Around the 14-minute mark, when the tempo increases and the love theme is played gradually louder and louder, you also hear the tympani increase like the advent of a thunderstorm, knowing that violence is about to interrupt the lovers and destroy their lives. It’s a thoroughly valid view of the music, but WHO TODAY PLAYS IT LIKE THIS? In my experience, no one, because they don’t view this overture in dramatic terms. They’re missing the forest for the trees.

Like Toscanini’s 1938 NBC broadcast, this performance of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures is for the most part considerably faster than his January 1953 recording—only “Tuileries” and “Limoges” come in at exactly the same tempi. The three sections of the suite that are somewhat harmed by this are “Il vecchio castello” (3:59 here as opposed to 4:22 in the NBC recording), “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” and “Catacombs,” while other sections (“Gnomus,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and “Baba Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”) actually benefit from the quicker pace, particularly the second of these where he does an excellent job of emulating the “pecking” sound of the baby chicks. But in some places the phrasing is different, too; despite the faster tempo, Toscanini introduces a nice bit of rubato at the 3:15 mark in “Il vecchio castello.” In addition, the suite gains a certain amount of frisson from being a live performance that offsets the somewhat quick pace, and again there are individual moments here and there where his phrasing and/or accents are different.

Someone once said that, when you live in Toscanini’s sound world for a couple of hours, no other classical recording you listen to will sound nearly as good, as tight, as well-bound, or as exciting. To a certain extent, this is true. Nowadays, it seems that the tautest and most exciting conductors are those who perform a lot of modern music, because that aesthetic demands precision and energy, but although there are a few (not many) who can come close to what Toscanini did, none truly duplicate it. He was one of a kind and, as Bruno Walter said, young conductors at least have his recordings to study to hear how he modified the musical line here and there to produce performances of genius.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Nikos Skalkottas’ Third Piano Concerto

cover

SKALKOTTAS: Piano Concerto No. 3 / Daan Vandewalle, pno; Blattwerk; Johannes Kalitzke, cond / Paladino Music PMR 016

Here we go with yet another neglected composer, this one Greek. Nikos Skalkottas was born in Chalkida in March 1904, started violin lessons at the age of five and, after graduating from the Athens Conservatory at the age of 16, moved to Berlin in 1921 and, after continuing to study the violin with Willy Hess, turned his attention to becoming a composer in 1923. According to Wikipedia, “Between 1927 and 1932 he was a member of Arnold Schoenberg’s Masterclass in Composition at the Academy of Arts” and had two children with his lover, violinist Matla Temko, of which only his daughter survived infancy. “In March 1933 he was forced by poverty and debt to return to Athens, intending to stay a few months and then return to Berlin. However, he suffered a nervous breakdown and his passport was confiscated by the Greek authorities, apparently because he had never done military service, and remained in Greece for the rest of his life. Among the various possessions he left behind were a large number of manuscripts; many of these were then lost or destroyed (although some were found in a secondhand bookshop in 1954). According to another account, his manuscripts were sold by his German landlady shortly after he left Berlin… As a composer he worked alone, but wrote prolifically, mainly in his very personal post-Schoenbergian idiom that had little chance of being comprehended by the Greek musical establishment. He did secure some performances, especially of some of the Greek Dances and a few of his more tonal works, but the vast bulk of his music went unheard. During the German occupation of Greece he was placed in an internment camp for some months. In 1946 he married the pianist Maria Pangali; they had two sons. In 1949, at the age of 45 and shortly before the birth of his second son, he died of what appears to have been the rupture of a neglected common hernia, leaving some symphonic works with incomplete orchestration, and many completed works that were given posthumous premieres.”

The liner notes for this disc indicate that as a composer his name is known by many musicians but, probably due to his lack of fame and their difficulty, his works are almost never performed. This is only the third recording of this concerto, which was written in 1939. The first was by Danae Kara with the Orchestre National de Montpellier for Decca in 2004 (now out of print) and the second by Geoffrey Madge with the Caput Ensemble conducted by Nikos Christodoulou for Bis in 2005 (still available).

What’s ironic about this is that, all things considered, his music is lyrical atonalism, more like Berg than Schoenberg. In fact, if you were to take the top line of the first movement and score it to more conventional harmony, it might have been accepted and performed in its day. Even as it is, however, it is more accessible to an open mind (yeah, I know…talk to those people who just want to hear more Chopin and Tchaikovsky) than some of Schoenberg’s works or the large orchestral works of Artur Schnabel. It’s also obvious that Skalkottas had a very fastidious mind: nothing in this music is superfluous, padding, or otherwise wasted gesture. It all makes sense and despite its atonalism flows with grace in addition to being logically constructed.

Skalkottas was also a masterful orchestrator. Absolutely none of his orchestral textures are cluttered, let alone dense; there is an almost continuous transparency of sound that invites the listener to pay attention lest he or she might miss something. Interestingly, the most atonal lines seem to be assigned to two instruments in particular, the trumpets and the clarinet, although occasional peeps from a flute and an oboe make their way into the work’s texture. Part of the reason for the symphony’s great clarity is that he uses no strings; it is written for trumpet, nine winds, piano and percussion.

Interestingly, too, Skalkottas retained the sonata form in this first movement, and although the second movement is considered to be “free-form” there are elements of sonata form here as well. As for the piano part, it is considered so demanding that when this concerto was given its world premiere in 1969, three different pianists were used. It wasn’t until 1985 that one pianist, Geoffrey Madge, played in a performance of it.

Interestingly, the rhythm in the third movement resembles a polka somewhat… but a Greek polka?..in which one hears the tuba quite prominently in the early sections. At the 12:26 mark, we suddenly hear smashing percussion that sounds for all the world like something by early George Antheil or Harry Partch. Now, this has a snappy beat for dancing! But seriously, this is the kind of work that takes several listening to catch all the various and sundry things going on in it, yet the effort is worth it. This is truly a masterpiece.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

The Chamber Music of Braga Santos

cover

BRAGA SANTOS: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. String Sextet* / Quarteto Lopes-Graça; *Leonor Braga Santos, vla; Irene Lima, cel / Toccata Classics 0207

Great Britain’s Toccata Classics label, like Spain’s IBS Classical, are adventurous companies who specialize in out-of-center classical repertoire. Naturally, the former stresses but is not limited to little-known British composers while the second focuses on modern Spanish composers.

In this instance, however (and of course there are others, like the music of Hans Winterberg), Toccata has cast its net further afield, in this case catching a Portuguese composer who, though he may indeed have been, as the notes claim, “one of the most important composers in the history of Portuguese music” (well, it’s written by his son…), is scarcely known in most Western countries. Interestingly, the extra viola in the String Sextet is played by Leonor Braga Santos, but his daughter.

The first string quartet, dating from 1945 when the composer was only 21 years old, is a fully mature piece written in the Stravinsky neo-classic style yet with his own sense of lyricism. He was quite obviously an apt pupil: the music shows a great command of the use of counter-voices, which in the first movement set up a sort of perpetuum mobile behind the lead violin and at times takes over the music as the first violinist joins in. It may not be purely Portuguese in terms of the thematic material, but it surely captures the spirit of that country’s indigenous folk/dance music.

The second movement, if anything, is even livelier than the first. Marked “Allegro con fuoco,” it has a sort of nervous energy about it that is highlighted by the strong but shifting syncopations. The jumpy theme is also developed very well. Naturally, the third movement is the “slow” one—it’s marked “Andante tranquillo”—yet there remains even here a forward “push” to the music, with the cello and viola playing fluttering, double-time figures beneath the two violins (sometimes the second violin joins them). Later on in the movement, Braga-Santos sets up a gently rocking barcarolle rhythm; then he switches gears to provide sharply-etched, dramatic string chords that interrupt a more lyrical flow, each one followed by a pause, before resuming the barcarolle feel with the first violin playing the melody against pizzicato strings. An excellent piece for a young composer. Almost predictably, the last movement, “Allegro molto energico,” returns us to young Braga Santos to his more explosive, rhythmic style, yet the second half features slower, gentler, more elegiac music for the finale.

It’s worth noting that his second string quartet, from 1957, is almost half as short as the first: 20:40 compared to 36:34, yet in many ways his style has not changed music, only his maturity in the creation and handling of his themes. This is, overall, a more thoughtful quartet, and I can appreciate the thought he put into it, yet this more cautious approach produces, ironically, more predictable music. Moreover, I didn’t get the sense that it said anything; much of the score seemed to me mere filler without as much substance as in the first quartet. Curiously, the second movement almost sounds more like American Indian music than Portuguese; it is redolent of the music of Edward MacDowell or Dvořák’s Indian Lament, and to be honest, it lacks imagination except for the sudden increase of tempo near the end of the second movement, where the cello suddenly pushes the beat like a jazz bassist as the other three strings accelerate. Even the peppy theme in the third movement—modal, and here sounding more Czech or Hungarian than Latin—almost sounds like a theme from the first quartet recycled.

We enter an entirely different world, however, with the 1986 String Sextet. This is a more atonal work, as were his Three Symphonic Sketches, his Sinfonietta and Requiem and his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The notes indicate that this was how his style began to change in 1960, becoming increasingly chromatic and also “an expansion of existing techniques, which include accentuated chromaticism, atonal melodism, alternative ways of dividing the octave, intervallic motivic thinking, harmony based in superimposed fourths, and extremely varied and detailed modes of execution (attack, articulation, phrasing).” Thus it seems that expanding his use of outside tonality also freed up his musical imagination without his having to sacrifice his identity. The exciting second movement of this Sextet has all the energy of his earlier Quartets but is far less predictable in its musical direction, diversity of tempo shifts and richer development. Braga Santos, then, did not merely shift to an atonal style as Stravinsky did in 1954, but created a different musical identity.

Kind of a mixed review, then: the first string quartet and the sextet are excellent works for their time and place, but the second quartet just seemed to me as Braga Santos marking time. The performances, however, are bristling with energy and exceedingly well played.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Prisuelos Tackles Stockhausen & Ligeti

cover

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

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Koukl Plays the Odd Music of Harsányi

cover

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

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Marcelle Meyer Plays Chabrier & Debussy

cover

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

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Camilla Tilling’s New Recital

cover

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

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard