Sorabji’s Massive “Sequentia Cyclica” Recorded

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AwardSORABJI: Sequentia Cyclica, Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis / Jonathan Powell, pno / Piano Classics PCL 10206, also available for free streaming on YouTube starting HERE

Many classical listeners have heard of, even if they’ve never heard it, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s five-hour-long Opus Clavicembalisticum, which has been recorded twice (once by John Ogdon and again by Geoffrey Douglas Madge), but that piece almost seems like a curtain-raiser for this one. The Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae, composed in 1948-49, is given a performance here that lasts eight hours and 11 minutes. Needless to say, this is its first recording.

Whereas Sorabji himself performed the Opus Clavicembalisticum only once in December 1930, and Ogden both performed it (1959) and recorded it (1985-86) while the composer was still alive, the Sequentia Cyclica was apparently neither performed nor recorded until after Sorabji’s death in 1988. According to the Sorabji Archive, its first public performance, an incomplete one, took place at Bohannon Hall in the University of Minnesota on April 8, 1999 by pianist Justin Rubin. Its next performance was given by the pianist on this recording, Jonathan Powell, another incomplete performance (only the Theme and sections i-xiii) at the offices of Bauer & Hieber, 48 Great Marlborough Street, London on December 18, 2008. Seven more performances by Powell were given, only three of them complete, on September 18, 2014 in the Netherlands, November 1, 2010 at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and again a week later at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. The only other public performance of any part of this massive work was Part xix, “Quasi Debussy,” by Florian Steiniger at the Kulturzentrum Tempel, Musentempel, Karlsruhe, Germany on April 19, 2015. Powell also gave an incomplete broadcast of the work for Netherlands Radio on May 6, 2013, which was rebroadcast by them a week later.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily long, dense work. Sorabji, a largely self-taught pianist, never could play his own music with the huge technique required for his works, and apparently he neither planned nor performed Sequentia Cyclica himself. I’ve heard his rare 1962 home recording of his own Gulistan on YouTube and can attest that he missed several notes, but his point in making the recording was that he knew “how it was supposed to go” and wanted to illustrate that his music should have shape, form and tone color no matter how complex the written passages were. This he was certainly able to do.

For most classical listeners, particularly those whose attention spans can just barely encompass a Beethoven Symphony, Sorabji is a pretentious windbag who wrote, like his predecessor Alkan, a “charnel-house of notes,” but for the majority of cultured and informed listeners, including many pianists for whom his works are beyond their grasp either because of not enough time for preparation or lack of interest in performances, he was a transcendent genius. I place him somewhere between these polar opposites. Taking his works one movement at a time, there are certainly places where he over-wrote, yet the music holds together surprisingly well and often casts a hypnotic spell on the listener. For Sorabji, with his Indian heritage which he clung to tenaciously despite having been born in Great Britain, music was as much an expression of mood and color as it was of structure. Just as most Indian ragas are meant to be repetitive and hypnotic in quality, he transferred this aesthetic to the world of Western classical piano music, creating a strange hybrid that is still not fully understood because of its length and its dearth of live performances and recordings.

sample page of manuscript

Sample page of the manuscript of “Sequentia Cyclica,” (c) The Sorabji Archive.

The Sorabji Archive lists this work as taking approximately 430 minutes. On this first recording of the work, Powell takes 491. The printed score is also massive, 335 pages long, exceeding the Opus Clavicembalisticum by 85 pages. In his very fulsome liner notes, Powell gives the newcomer to this cycle a guide to its various parts, including a description of Sorabji’s dynamics markings and the required, one might say the correct, manner of phrasing. Herewith an example, his description of Variation 3:

Although generally relaxed in tone, this short variation has considerable expressive range and is punctuated by a series of dramatic outbursts over a gently undulating landscape. At the opening (in D flat major), patterns of four, five, six and seven semiquavers in the right hand, continually hinting at the outlines of the chant, are pitted against triplets in the left hand which pick out longer melodies. As the tessitura widens towards the extremities of the keyboard, a stark chord of D major in first inversion (at 2:14) heralds a new section in which rhetorical material alternates with brief re-statements of the opening (at 2:40, 3:04 and 3:18) before descending to a statement of the incipit of the theme in low trills. There follows a luxuriant development of the opening material (from 3:42) that hints at the nocturnal music of variations 10, 13 and 14. At 5:25 a final interruption occurs, this time with the theme superimposed on a rhythmic quasi trillo (recalling the opening of Sorabji’s Tāntrik Symphony), which builds to another D major-type chord at 5:58 (with added tritone in the treble) and a series of chords in dotted rhythms. The drama has burnt itself out by 6:21, where a low sustained D in the left hand acts as an anchor to waves of chords that fan out towards the top of the piano. At 7:00 the original material returns, transfigured, before a descent to the final Amen.

And here is his description of Variation 5:

Marked ardito, focosamente, this is the first of five variations (the others being Nos. 9, 12, 18 and 23) that treat the material in a rhapsodic, often energetically virtuosic manner (Variation 12 slightly less so). The roots of this style of writing in Sorabji’s work may be found in his early Sonata No.1 (1919); later examples include the often huge opening movements of his piano symphonies labelled Intrecciata (Italian for ‘plait’ or inter-weaving)19 which combine sometimes large numbers of themes in a freewheeling manner. Variation No.5 is split into two halves. The first is rhetorical and broadly consists of four sections, each of which is introduced by the arresting opening gesture (or a variant of it): a group of fast chords which hurl towards a final, accented one (at 0:01, 1:03, 2:01 and 3:43). The second half starts at 4:28 and is initially reflective. Sorabji gradually increases the degree of complexity in metre and dissonance of harmony until he starts to re-introduce elements of the first part until, starting at 7:47, there are no fewer than five iterations of the opening motif during the remaining 30 seconds of music.

As you can see, then, this is extraordinarily detailed music calling for, as Sorabji so often did, a sensitive musical instinct beyond the actual written notes. I can scarcely compete with Powell, since I have no access to the full score and it would easily take me several months to read and analyze it nearly as well as he, therefore I shall refrain from a technical description of what is going on and instead attempt descriptions of moods as the pieces go by my ears.

Powell clearly has the mood and color of Sorabji down pat from the opening of the Theme. Sorabji’s two favorite pianists—neither one of whom played a note of his music in pubic—were Egon Petri and Alfred Cortot, and both were noted for their rich, deep-in-the-keys sound (particularly the latter). Cortot, in his prime, had a pretty decent technique, which deteriorated somewhat by the early 1950s, but extant recordings show that Petri was also a super-virtuoso in a class with Cziffra, Raymond Lewenthal or, among today’s pianists, Marc-André Hamelin. And believe me, as this cycle continues, super-virtuosity becomes important. Immediately after the theme we get a “Vivace” that calls for almost superhuman digital dexterity, and here Powell is also up to the task. Indeed, upon hearing this early section, I realized why the timing of Powell’s performance exceeds that of the estimated time. By playing the music slightly slower, he is able to bring out the structure by articulating each passage clearly. Sorabji packed so many notes into every phrase and bar that sometimes the ear fails to “catch up” with the music unless the pianist’s articulation is crystal clear.

sample page printed score

Sample page of the printed score (c) The Sorabji Archive.

The third variation, titled “Legato, soave e liscio,” is one of the most beautiful things Sorabji ever wrote, albeit beautiful in a modern way. The notes fall across each other as they unravel at the keyboard like falling leaves from a tree or petals from a flower. It’s when you come up to No. IV, “Tranquillo e piano,” that you really run up against Sorabji’s thorniness: part 1 lasts nearly an hour (50:27) while part 2 runs another 14:18. Holy Samolians! Yet once again, the thematic development is clear and, since the music runs rather slowly, not difficult to follow.

The fifth variation, “Ardito, focosamente” (“Bold, fiery”) is one of the thorniest—see Powell’s notes on this section above. One of the more interesting, and somewhat charming, variations is No. VIII, marked “Tempo di Valzer con molta fantasia,” where Sorabji uncharacteristically uses 3/4 time. Variation IX, marked “Capriccioso,” is one of his most imaginative and fantastic creations, while Variation X, “Il tutto in una sonorità piena, dolce, morbida,” takes us to the polar opposite mood, sounding almost like a celesta in certain sections. Oddly, the way Powell plays Variation XI, “Vivace e secco,” it almost has a jazz swagger to the rhythm, though Sorabji hated jazz. Variation XII, “Leggiero a capriccio,” also has a strong syncopated swagger about it.

In Variation XIII, the music is rather fragmented, emerging almost as an allusion to the theme than a recognizable variation on it; the music seems to get lost in its own ruminations. After the very long and soft Variation XIV, the 15th variation surprises one with its Latin beat (it is titled “Hispanica”), while Variation XVIII is angry and energetic. My own theory about Sorabji and the creation of his music stems from three things: firstly, of course, his fascination with classical music, to which he was drawn like a moth to a flame; secondly, his long and bitter arguments with his father which, like those of Hector Berlioz, were never quite resolved; and thirdly, his hyper-sensitivity about being both a homosexual and a foreigner, a “stranger in a strange land.” I honestly believe that it was partly to spite his father that he rejected his given name, but in a way it probably hurt his mother even more…after all, she was British. Yet he obstinately changed his name to Kaikhosru Shapurji to make himself as different as he could, then locked himself away in his own mind, spinning out these fantastic, over-lengthy piano works for the rest of his life partly in spite. He wanted to show the world what a great genius he was, and what better way than to out-write every other composer on the face of the earth? All of the notes in his music aside, these gargantuan monologues were his form of self-therapy to align himself with the highest form of art, an art so pure that he even banned performances of it for 40 years, just to show the world what a genius they were maligning. The amazing thing about his music is that it lacks self-pity, but that was because he considered himself superior to everyone else, not really a victim except for his being gay and his father’s stern opposition, both of which he kept well hidden except from his one or two close friends.

Variation XXI is one of the most harmonically dense and, although in a slow tempo, disguises the theme more completely than in many others. But without question, the most massive “movement” in this cycle is the gargantuan No. XXII, the “Passacaglia with 100 Variations” which, all by itself runs 97 minutes and 38 seconds (it is divided on the CDs into nine bands). Yet throughout this massive structure, Sorabji never repeats himself or writes a superfluous variant. It is a remarkable piece of music. Within this Passacaglia, the most remarkable section is that encompassing Variations 66-75, which opens with extremely irregular, almost clumsy-sounding syncopation, as if Sorabji were lampooning jazz (which he detested). These “clumsy” syncopations pick up again at the 4:30 mark before the music changes back to a regular meter.

One of my favorite variations was No. XXV, titled “Sotto voce, scorrevole,” a really kooky soft, fast and quite short (2:15) piece that was really delightful. The middle section of Variation XXVI moves like a whirlwind, while Variation XXVII –the last one—is the most complex, a series of five fugues which Sorabji built up from two-voice to six-voice, spanning nearly 80 minutes. Boy, I’ll bet this guy was a real hit at parties! Just sit him down at the piano, wind him up, and let him go for three or four hours at a clip!

Throughout this review I haven’t said a word about Powell’s playing style or technique, and that is a compliment. It means that I had no problems with his phrasing or pacing of the score. Whether or not his playing has any “individuality” I can’t say, having never heard him play a standard repertoire piece, but surely anyone who can produce such a fine performance of such a monstrous piece of music could probably play the phone book (as the old cliché went) and make it sound interesting. I bow to Mr. Powell. This is a monumental achievement that may never be duplicated on records ever again, and he deserves all the credit in the world for having convinced Piano Classics to let him record it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jan Radzynski’s Cello Music

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RADZYNSKI: Prayer and Dance. Concert Duos: I. Polonaise; II. Melody; III. Andalusia; IV. Valse; V. Victory March.+ Improvisation for Cello Solo. 5 Duets for 2 Cellos.* Cello Sonata / Zvi Plesser, *Hillel Zori, cel; +Chen Halevi, cl; Matan Porat, pno / Centaur CRC 3480

Israeli cellist Zvi Plesser plays here a program of music for his instrument by Polish-born composer Jan Radynski, who migrated to Israel at age 19. Radynski studied composition with Leon Schidlowsky in Israel and with Krzysztof Penderecki and Jacob Druckman at Yale University, later teaching at Yale before joining the faculty at Ohio State University in 1994, where he still teaches.

Radzynski’s music is much more lyrical than Penderecki’s, thank goodness, yet it has extremely undercurrents in the piano harmony that mark it as modern. In the opening “Prayer,” too, there’s a very interesting passage in which the piano follows the cello closely, an octave higher, in single-note lines, whereas the “Dance” is almost like something that Szymanowski would have written.

Zvi Plesser

Zvi Plesser

The Concert Duos feature clarinetist Chen Halevi, who often plays in his instrument’s lower register to create a nice balance with the cello. This music, too, has a modern feel in both the top line and the harmony created without sacrificing lyricism. The rhythm in the first piece certainly has a polonaise feel to it, but only at certain moments; otherwise, it moves along at a nice clip without emphasizing the beat. In “Melody,” the two instruments play tonally in close harmony for a long stretch of time. The “Valse” is a very strange piece in close harmony, some of it bitonal. Radzynski also continues this little bitonality game into the last piece, “Victory March,” adding some sliding portamento near the very end.

The Improvisation for Cello Solo gives the player a chance to show off several technical tricks, including fast tremolos with the bow while he continues to pluck bass notes in the lower strings, microtonal slides, and other devices, yet still retains a good sense of musical form. This is the first piece on this CD that is truly modern in every sense of the word, lacking a recognizable melodic form in the old completely tonal system.

Radzynski employs a sort of in-between system of writing for the 5 Duets for 2 Cellos. Each cello plays a line that, by itself, sounds perfectly fine to those with a tonal bias, but put together they create friction in intervals that are, so to speak, “too close for comfort” except in the fourth piece, “Remembering Sephared,” which is pretty much in B minor.

With the Cello Sonata, we return to Radzynski’s style of writing essentially lyrical, melodic lines for the cello while shifting chords and chord positions in the piano part, with excellent results. At times, this sonata put me in mind of (good) Shostakovich, while in other places the music was edgier than even he would have written. Radzynski increases the tension in the first movement by having the solo cello play lines that gradually rise, either by whole or half-steps, until it breaks out with a double-time passage that releases the tension temporarily. The second movement opens with a lyrical yet passionate theme statement by the cello before the piano enters, an ostinato march rhythm is introduced on the piano, and off we go to no one knows where. Eventually we hear both instruments, each in his favorite key, trying to make their music mesh but only rarely having success at it. In the third movement, both instruments start out in a querulous mood, testing the waters, before the cello suddenly tries to make a break for it via rising serrated figures, but the piano says, “Oh no, you don’t!” and chases after him. Eventually the cello slows down, as if he wants to be caught, but as soon as the piano sounds close enough he is again off to the races. It’s a very whimsical piece, full of humor and, again, well written.

This is a really interesting CD of well-written and interesting music. You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eye out for more of Radzynski’s music in the future.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Sampson Explores English Poetry in Song

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WALTON: A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. 3 Façade Settings. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Orpheus With his Lute. The Sky Above the Roof. Silent Noon. BRIDGE: Go Not, Happy Day. When Most I Wink. Adoration. Come to Me in My Dreams. When You Are Old. Mantle of Blue. Love Went A-Riding. WATKINS: Who Called Love Conquering. Wants. Love Songs in Age. Money. Dawn. QUILTER: Dream Valley, Fair House of Joy. By a Fountainside. Arab Love Song. Autumn Evening. My Life’s Delight / Carolyn Sampson, sop; Joseph Middleton, pno / Bis SACD-2413

Carolyn Sampson, the British soprano with the crystalline voice, here gives a recital focusing as much on the poetry of English writers as on the music presented. Poets Thomas Jordan, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Charles Morris, William Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, W.B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Mary Coleridge, Philip Larkin, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Arthur Maquarie, Thomas Campion and Edith Sitwell—the great, the near-great, and a few not well known outside England—are all represented here along with a few poems by that most prolific of writers, Anonymous. She is joined in this endeavor by Joseph Middleton, an excellent pianist who is able to match the singer’s (and the poem’s) every mood.

To my ears, Sampson’s vibrato has gotten a bit looser than in earlier years, but it is still a lovely and attractive voice with moderately good diction and plenty of “character.” The opening song in Walton’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor, “The Lord Mayor’s Table,” also shows that Sampson has retained her easy facility in fioratura, being able to negotiate the trickiest passages (as also in “The Contrast”) easily, while the second, “Glide Gently,” shows off her smooth legato despite the now more pronounced vibrato in her voice. I have only one complaint, and that is of the sonics. The album sounds as if it had been recorded in an empty railway station at 3 in the morning with the microphone set four feet over the head of both soprano and pianist. Alas, this disc is not alone in this defect; both Naxos and Bis seem morbidly fascinated with too much reverb in their classical recordings, on which I have commented several times in this blog. Rather less echo next time around, please!

By the time we reach Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus With His Lute,” Sampson’s voice is under much better control, the vibrato now generally more even. Either she warmed up or it was recorded on a different day. I’ve always been a little disappointed that many of Frank Bridge’s songs come from his earlier, less interesting late-Romantic period, but Sampson does a fine job on them as well.

For me, personally, the most interesting music on this disc was that by Welsh composer Huw Watkins (b. 1976) which, though still lyrical and essentially tonal, has some very interesting harmony in the piano part, often moving chromatically up or down behind the singer. “Money” was particularly interesting in its use of both harmony and rhythm.

Quilter’s songs, also late Romantic, are nonetheless sometimes interesting in their construction. I particularly liked “Fair House of Joy” and “Autumn Evening” almost sounds like a modern-day madrigal. We end with Walton’s “sung” settings of three of the Façade poems, the music quite different from the ones in which the vocalist just recites the poems to rhythm.

All in all, a nice recital of some older British music set to some interesting poetry, very nicely sung and played.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The SOOON Trio Debuts on Disc

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AwardYOUCHZ NOW / SOOON: Der Mongolische Reiter. Dunloe Gap. Klezma. Al Záhara. Nornu Jovnna. Iberimbao. Jodel Breton. Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracuse. Voix-là: Durabai. Gula Gula. Bellow Dance. Kabak. Zaman. Sunneufgang Juuchz / Sonja Morgenegg, voc/yodel/overtone voc/gtr/monochord; John Wolf Brennan, pno/Sordino pno/Arcopno/ Harppno/Oudpno/Melodica/acc/Fender Rhodes pno/voc/tubes; Tony Majdalani, perc/cajòn/udo/Berimbao/frame dm/handpan/bs-dm/gong/voc/etc. / Narrenschiff NAR 2019137

This is the debut CD of the SOOON Trio, a group that combines elements of Swiss yodeling, shamanic chants, Arabic music, Celtic music and jazz. Their members are Swiss yodeler-singer Sonja Morgenegg, Irish-Swiss pianist John Wolf Brennan and Haifa-born percussionist/vocalist Tony Majdalani. The liner notes explain that the group spells Soon with three Os to symbolize the Os in eastern Switzerland (Ost), Overtone and the O in Yodel, also “as in BerimbaO, in PianO, in vOcal and as in TOny, SOnja and JOhn.” As for the album title, Youchz or juuchz is the Eastern Swiss expression for yodeling.

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L to R: Brennan, Morgenegg, Majdalani

Just from the above description, you can deduce that SOOON is far from a conventional-sounding musical group, but you really can’t grasp how different until you’ve heard them. One recalls such past phenoms as the Celtic revival album Secret Garden, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Gilles Apap and the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, or Sheila Chandra as comparisons, yet even they sounded somewhat more conventional than SOOON. The best description I can conjure up, though it sounds derogatory (but isn’t), is post-modern splintered folk music. Yodeler-singer-guitarist Morgenegg is clearly the dominant performer on each track. As a genre, “Youchz” seems to fit in the pop-jazz-folk-world music category, in the integrated, hyphenated sense of that term.

The opening number sounds like Swiss yodeling blended with a light rock beat and a Middle Eastern sound while the second, Dunloe Gap, seems to be mixing Eastern European, Celtic and pop styles in a strange brew. Technical descriptions of this music are not impossible—each piece seems to be built from the top down, which is to say from Morgenegg’s voice (and/or guitar) on down through the piano to the percussion rather than from the bottom up, as was the case with Abou-Khalil’s music, and in almost every piece a connection to the pop world is evident even though none of these songs are EVER going to be played on I-Heart-Radio’s pop music app (or, if you’re lucky, any still-surviving radio stations that play pop). As pointed out in the notes, Morgenegg combines the vocal traditions of Muotathaler Juuz and other Swiss natural yodels with singing practices from the Georgian Yodel Krimantchuli, Hawaiian Yodeling, the Nordic Yoik, and the shamanic singing and overtone practices of Central Asia. But her singing and this music is not tied to any one tradition; their practice and their style breaks down the boundaries between these very different traditions to create a sort of super-conglomerate all its own. Again, according to the notes:

…the mixture of different tonalities contributes to the color. Arabic scales with their characteristic microtonal structure blend in with the “equally tempered mode,” which has shaped Western music for the past 150 years. Although the semitones are all equal, they are slightly impure. In combination with natural tone scales and mathematically pure moods, a variety of microtonal layers are created…[which break up] the major and minor patterns.

All of which is true, yet the ear tends to filter out the “microtonal layers” and hear the music as essentially tonal or at least modal in a recognizable sense. At least, I didn’t hear anything here as bizarre as the microtonal experiments of Julián Carrillo or Harry Partch. Iberimbao and Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracusa, the latter of which also features Majdalani as principal vocalist, are the most Middle Eastern-sounding tracks on the album, while Voix-là: Durabai sounds the closest to African music, albeit with some wild Swiss yodeling. To my ears, Gula Gula mixes some elements of American Indian and Middle Eastern music.

For pianist Brennan, SOOON is just another step in his musical journey through various styles of jazz and world music. His past associations include playing in a rock band as a teenager, founding the jazz fusion group Freemprovisations in 1977, and stints with the Mohrenkopf Afro-jazz band, the SinFONietta ensemble, Chicago bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, and the SONIC ROOTS and Pago Libre ensembles (I reviewed Pago Libre’s Out on a Limb CD in September 2018). Jodel Breton most clearly shows up his piano skills, although he also contributes an interesting percussive solo on Pythagoras’ Science Frictions.

I should point out that Morgenegg’s voice, though very slightly nasal, has an extremely attractive timbre that one immediately likes, as was the case in the past with Sheila Chandra and, earlier, Klezmer specialist Judy Bressler. Only in Kabak does she go to extremes, purposely “pushing” her natural sound out of its natural tonal center to create an almost masculine sound (albeit in her high soprano range) as well as making the voice, in one passage, even more nasal as a means of propelling some strange “bubbling” sounds.

If you’re open to new musical experiences and enjoy hearing “something completely different,” as John Cleese of Monty Python used to say, this is surely it. You may never hear music in a normal manner ever again after your exposure to SOOON!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Cotik’s Passionate Bach

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AwardBACH: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin / Tomás Cotik, vln / Centaur CRC 3755/56

Normally, I stay away from reviewing 95% of new recordings of old music for two specific reasons. Firstly, it is my experience that the very greatest performances of this repertoire has already been recorded, and for performer X to assume that his or her take on a particular work is going to outshine everyone from the past is more that a bit of hubris. But secondly, and particularly in the case of 18th and 19th-century music, so much of it has been ruined by the use of constant straight tone that it just makes me sick to listen to them.

But Argentinean violinist Tomás Cotik, who has actually made the violin sonatas of Mozart sound interesting (an almost superhuman feat, in my view) and breathed new life into the rather pedestrian music of Piazzola, is not just another violinist. He is a passionate musician who always seems to get under the skin of the music he performs, thus I was curious to hear his take on these sonatas and partitas.

My favorite recording of these works to date is the one by Mark Kaplan on Bridge. Kaplan unashamedly plays a modern violin and bow and uses a light, fast vibrato in sustained notes, which is right and proper. String players of the 18th and 19th centuries DID NOT use constant straight tone when they played. They used vibrato for sustained notes and straight tone for the faster passages because it was easier to negotiate them without vibrato. Listen to the recordings of such 19th-century violinists as Joachim and Sarasate if you don’t believe me. They also used a fairly broad portamento, something that modern musicians scorn like the plague, but if you’re going to be historically accurate, that’s how you should play. The one 20th-century violinist who came closest to earlier string players was Bronislaw Huberman, and it is exactly his use of portamento that modern string players find so offensive, but that’s the real deal, folks. If you’re going to throw out the baby, you may as well throw out the bath water.

Cotik plays here with a modern violin but a Baroque bow, which he finds gives him better control and flexibility in this music, but he does overdo the straight tone a bit more than I like. Thus, insofar as the sheer sound of the instrument goes, I prefer Kaplan to Cotik. One thing I noticed was that, either due to the bow, his use of straight tone, or both, Cotik’s playing has a bit more of a “rough-and-ready” sound to it than Kaplan.

But then there is the underlying shape and form of each piece in these six works and the motor rhythms of the fast pieces, and here Cotik scores over Kaplan. Every movement of each sonata and partita is played faster by Cotik. Of course, speed in and of itself means nothing, but despite my wishing that he would have used a bit more vibrato in his slow movements, I did not feel that Cotik ignored the feeling in those slow movements, and the faster movements are simply terrific. Just listen, for instance, to the fourth-movement “Presto” of the first sonata for an example of what I mean. Kaplan plays it with good energy and a lot of feeling, but in Cotik’s skilled hands the notes simply jump off the bow. Moreover, in those in-between movements like the “Allamanda” in the first partita, Cotik’s rhythmic feeling—though quite clearly influenced by 20th-century music such as jazz (though he is decidedly not a jazz violinist)—makes for a big difference in the shaping and “bounce” in every phrase. To my ears, it is entirely unique in the presentation of this music, which is (a few popular movements aside) not everyone’s favorite Bach. Cotik even adds a slight hesitation in the spaces between notes here and there, as if to point up the slightly offbeat swagger of the music at this point.

Moreover, he makes a completely different distinction between the rhythms in each of the quick movements, giving each one a specific character. The result, if I may be so bold to say so, is the give these Bach pieces a little bit of a Paganini-like feel to them. For some listeners, this may seem like a bit of showing-off, but for me there is no question but that this is the most exciting rendition of these works I’ve ever heard. Indeed, as the performance continued—about the time I reached the “Tempo de Borea” of the first partita—I had to stop playing the critic and simply marvel at this man’s energy and commitment to the music. His passion is infectious.

By playing this music with such rhythmic acuity and emotional directness, Cotik has also managed to make us hear the connections between each movement, which in turn pulls the movements together to form a cohesive musical whole. It’s like listening to Felix Weingartner conduct the Brahms symphonies, some movements of which always sound sprawling and a bit stodgy in the hands of others, suddenly have their structure jump out at you as you say to yourself, “Oh, so that’s what Brahms was doing!” He plays like a gypsy fiddler with a classical technique, and this is part of what makes these performances so exciting. Hear, for instance, how he phrases the lines and bounces the rhythms in the “Fuga” of the second sonata for an example of what I mean.

In a sense, however, his strong rhythms and gypsy-like attacks almost make the slow preludes sound superfluous. It’s not that he plays them without feeling—on the contrary, he gives them just the right feel—but more that you feel a tad impatient, waiting for them to be over so he can thrill you with the faster movements. Is this a bad thing? You decide. I found myself mesmerized by what he has to offer in this music. In the “Andante” of the second sonata, for instance, you become hypnotized by the way he accentuates the lower-register accompaniment to his own playing, making it sound less like a series of droning sounds than like the “push” of a bowed jazz bassist, rhythmically speaking. To reiterate, it’s the way a gypsy violinist, not a classical purist, would play them. Mind you, I still wish he had used some vibrato in those slow movements, which is not only historically but musically correct, but what the heck.

For the curious, the first violinist to record these pieces using a Baroque bow was Sigiswald Kuijken, way back in the 1980s. His was, for me, the touchstone set of these works for many years despite his use of straight tone. Then along came Kaplan to completely change my viewpoint. Although I still prefer Kaplan’s less scrappy tone in the slow preludes, this is now my benchmark performance of these works. You’ve simply got to get them!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hawkins’ Music for Clarinet

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SIMPLICIUS / HAWKINS: Simplicius Simplicissimus.1 The Dong With a Luminous Nose.2 In Touch.3,4 Clarinet Sonata.4 Clarinet Concerto1 / Steve Dummer, cl; 2Aidan Smith, bs-bar; 3Ivana Peranic, cel; 4Yoko Ono, pno; 1Stane Street Sinfonietta; Holly Mathieson, cond / Claudio Contemporary CC6045-2

John Hawkins (b. 1949), a friend of composer Barry Mills whose music I liked, sent me this CD for potential review. The very opening of Simplicius Simplicissimus sounded like ambient classical to me, but in short order the harmonies became more modern and interesting and, before long, the tempo increased and things got very intriguing indeed. Like his friend Mills, Hawkins has a fine sense of construction; unlike Mills, some of his music moves at very fast tempi indeed. He certainly learned his composition lessons well from Elisabeth Luytens and Malcolm Williamson. The piece continues to develop using those two basic building blocks, the slow opening and the faster, edgier orchestral playing—and at 6:34, it surely does not overstay its welcome.

Edward Lear, mostly known for his nonsense lyrics, contributed the words to The Dong With a Luminous Nose, in which he playfully conceals some real feelings about love, loneliness and loss. Bass-baritone Aidan Smith has a fine tone and exceptionally clear diction despite an infirm unsteadiness of sustained tones. And yet once again, I found myself fascinated by Hawkins’ writing—so clearly laid out, and so well suited rhythmically to the meter of the poem. He has the clarinet play soft low notes, low trills and occasional upward glissandi to indicate the length of the Dong’s “plaintive pipe.”

The trio In Touch has a nice, ruminative feel to the music, the first movement of which always seems to be exploring and never quite coming to a conclusion. The second movement is very slow-moving, and here Hawkins does indeed resolve his harmony though the piano part uses unusual chord positions to keep things in flux at times. The third movement seems to combine elements of the first two: there is restlessness, yet also moments in which the music feels settled only to start probing once more. All of the performers here are excellent. In the Clarinet Sonata, Hawkins sets up uneasy rhythmic figures in the piano part over which the clarinet plays lyrically; occasionally the piano joins him in this lyricism, yet always seems to play chords that have no tonic. Again, a bit of resolution comes in the slow movement, following which the third movement moves along at a quick but interrupted pace, with unusual piano arpeggios behind the clarinet.

In the final work, the clarinet concerto, we hear yet another plaintive melody starts the proceedings, after which the string orchestra enters playing a surprisingly tonal melodic line. This, however, again moves into more unsettled harmonic territory, although again Hawkins’ excellent feeling for structure keeps everything in perfect balance. Suddenly, the music becomes louder and rather faster for a while, then settles back into a slow, ruminative cadenza for the soloist. Hawkins varies the meter in the second movement, keeping the listener attentive for all the little subtleties he puts into the music. The third movement is the most interesting, using low plucked bass notes to both set the mood and propel the music from below as the upper strings and clarinet take turns adding their own ideas to the score. The violas play gently rocking figures beneath the soloist, then later both clarinet and orchestra take opposing rhythms to keep them separate for a few bars rather than merging, which they do in the end.

This is a very interesting CD, well worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Vol. 2 of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”

Bernstein-Vol2

YOUNG PEOPLE’S CONCERTS, Vol. 2 / 1. What is Sonata Form? excerpts by MOZART, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BIZET, PROKOFIEV w/Veronica Tyler, sop. 2. A Tribute to Sibelius. excerpts by SIBELIUS w/Sergiu Luca, vln. 3. Musical Atoms: A Study of Intervals. excerpts by WAGNER, J. STRAUSS, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BRAHMS, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS. 4. The Sound of an Orchestra. excerpts by HAYDN, BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY, GERSHWIN, COPLAND, BACH. 5. A Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich. excerpts by SHOSTAKOVICH, BEETHOVEN. 6. What is a Mode? excerpts by DEBUSSY, ALMER, SIBELIUS, BARRI/SLOAN, LISZT, RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, BRAHMS, PROKOFIEV, SIBELIUS, CHOPIN, MUSSORGSKY, BERRY/GREENWICH, DAVIES, LENNON/McCARTNEY, BERNSTEIN, BEETHOVEN. 7. A Toast to Vienna in 3/4 Time. excerpts by J. STRAUSS, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, MAHLER, R. STRAUSS W/Christa Ludwig, mezzo; Water Berry, bs-bar. 8. Quiz-Concert: How Musical Are You? excerpts by RIMSKY-KORSAKOV. 9. Berlioz Takes a Trip. excerpts by BERLIOZ. 10. Two Ballet Birds. excerpts by TCHAIKOVSKY, STRAVINSKY. 11. “Fidelio”: A Celebration of Life. excerpts from BEETHOVEN: Fidelio w/Anita Darian, sop; Forest Warren, ten; Howard Ross, bass; David Cumberland, bs-bar. 12. Unusual Instruments of the Present, Past & Future. excerpts by VILLA-LOBOS, DE LA TORRE, GABRIELI, BACH, LUENING/ USSACHEVSKY, BUCCI W/Vladimir Ussachevsky, tape recorder; Anita Darian, kazoo. 13. Overtures & Preludes. excerpts by ROSSINI, BEETHOVEN, DEBUSSY. 14. Aaron Copland Birthday Party. music by COPLAND w/William Warfield, bar; Aaron Copland, cond. 15. Young Performers No. 4. excerpts by MOZART, LISZT w/Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca, Pamela Paul, André Watts, pno; Yuri Krasnopolsky, Serge Fournier, cond. 16. Young Performers No. 5. excerpts by HANDEL, RAVEL, RAN, BARTÓK, ROSSINI w/Heidi Lehwalder, harp; Weldon Berry, cl; Amos Eisenberg, fl; Shulamit Ran, pno; Steohen Kates, cel; Claudio Abbado, Pedro Calderóm, Zdenêk Kobler, cond. 17. Young Performers No. 6. excerpts by MOZART, MENDELSSOHN, RAVEL W/Patricia Micheaelian, pno; James Buswell, vln / New York Philharmonic Orch.; Leonard Bernstein, cond/narr / Unitel Edition 800408

Having already been issued previously on VHS tapes and later, by C Major, on DVDs, Unitel resumes its re-reissue of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts. AS in the case with Vol. 1, one can go in and select “Subtitles Off” before clicking on any of the programs on each DVD prior to playing it, but the DVD automatically selects English subtitles anyway, which means that after each show starts you have to go BACK into “Titles Menu” and click “Subtitles Off” a second time.

Perhaps because he felt that many of the same young people were coming to most of the concerts, plus the fact that they had gotten a bit older since he started in 1958, by 1964-66 Bernstein’s lecture-demonstrations began to delve into more technical lessons on sonata form, a study of intervals and modes. Sonata form is actually a pretty basic topic, and to a certain point so too are intervals, but the subject of modes has always seemed, even to me, a bit knotty. Yes, yes, I know that the three basic Greek modes used in Western classical music are the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian and the Mixolydian, but to be honest the only one I have firmly in my own mind is the latter, a scale that starts on a G and only uses the white keys, which means that the 7th note of the scale is an F natural and not an F#. My ears can always tell when a mode is being used because there is bound to be an interval or two that doesn’t fit into the well-tempered scale, but by and large I really don’t care which it is. As the old swing-era song went, “’Tain’t whatcha do, it’s the way how’cha do it, that’s what gets results.” As long as the composer knows what he or she is doing and it works, I wouldn’t care if the scale or mode was a Mixodorian.

And, in his lecture on sonata form, Bernstein admits that you can’t hear sonata form “all at once” because music unravels in time and you can’t tell where a piece of music is going until it gets there. To be honest, I don’t know if modern-day pop music lovers could tell basic sonata form because it’s not used in most of their music nowadays. Bernstein uses the much more basic A-B-A form of pop music, which is just about all we get nowadays if we’re lucky, but of course real sonata form also uses a trio theme which follows the A-B-A sections. He then jumps from the Beatles’ And I Love Her to soprano Veronica Tyler (overripe vibrato and all) singing Micaela’s aria from Carmen, which uses A-B-A-C, and in a much more complex way than most pop songs. Fortunately, he explains it when she’s finished. Then he explains how all of this is expanded exponentially in a sonata and/or symphony. The problem is that he then jumps into music that breaks the very rules he has just taught and expects his young audience to pick that up as well. I’m sure some did (maybe one out of twenty) but many did not. As a young person myself (I was 13 years old when this program first aired), I found it fascinating but listened more intently to the music than to the technical explanation, and there I, and most listeners, have been ever since. I now know all the “rules” but realize that it’s the way the finished product moves and impacts one’s mind and emotions that really matters the most.

The programs devoted to a single composer, Sibelius and Shostakovich, are rather less technical, focusing on emotional or political messages in their music. Surprisingly, Bernstein gives a rather stirring and taut performance of the former’s Finlandia that I liked very much. Sergiu Luca played a very good performance of that composer’s Violin Concerto in the same concert. Ironically, Luca is best remembered today as an early-music pioneer, one of the proponents of the phony “straight toned” violin school. This program is truly more of a concert and less of a music lesson. For me, as a 14-year-old, the Violin Concerto was a bit too subtle for me to grasp—I had just recently been exposed to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and preferred that piece in both form and melodic content—but at least we just got the music here without too much technical explanation. Although, as I say, a good performance, it does not hold a candle to the recordings by Guila Bustabo or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Musical Atoms: The Study of Intervals may have been one of his most influential lectures, since intervals are something that every music lover can hear and their spacing is even more important to the progress and impact of a piece than sonata form per se. It is by properly hearing intervals and following how a composer uses them that most impacts your emotional and intellectual appreciation of a piece, particularly since it can be applied to music of all schools and eras. Even Bernstein says it: “If you understand that one point, there’s nothing in music you can’t understand.” He then patiently explains how “inverting” an interval doesn’t mean playing it backwards, but spacing it out either up or down an octave to create an entirely different feeling—and of course the first movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is the perfect example of this. Yet although Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony makes an excellent example of the use of minor seconds, I felt that its growing complexity was beyond the grasp of many of the young listeners, so once again Bernstein took a good lesson plan and complicated it.

I had to laugh when, after playing part of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in a “bombastic” arrangement at the beginning of the next show (The Sound of an Orchestra), Bernstein told his audience that it was “the sound of an orchestra showing off.” Yeah, that’s the New York Phil for you: always showing off. I mean, just listen to the introduction of each show: “From Lincoln Center, home of the WORLD’S GREATEST MUSICAL EVENTS…” Says who? The script writer at CBS? “The award-winning show…” Yeah, ‘cause you gave yourselves those awards. The World hasn’t given you any awards or deemed your performances The World’s Greatest. But seriously, I did appreciate his explaining that Beethoven’s music called for a certain “roughness of sound: that was not appropriate for Brahms—a lesson that Toscanini and a few others understood but most German conductors (excepting Scherchen and Gielen) did not. He then makes an obvious but important difference between the dry-but-opaque sound of Debussy’s music and the dry-but-clear sound of Stravinsky. This was another of his more successful programs, showing how an orchestra can sound very different depending on the composer, era and style being presented.

The Birthday Tribute to Shostakovich opens with an excerpt from the slow movement from one of his masterpieces, the Seventh Symphony, but spends most of the show on his complete Ninth Symphony, one of his ugliest works. Yes, it was meant as a bit of an ironic joke because it was his Ninth Symphony and yet was rather short and ostensibly witty, but Shostakovich’s sense of humor was much more gauche than that of Prokofiev. I skipped most of this show because of my antipathy towards this symphony. The next program, beginning DVD 3, is the one on modes, which was the first program of the series broadcast in color. I voiced my concerns regarding this topic (for young people who are not necessarily music students) earlier, and although Bernstein starts off with a real masterpiece of modal music, Debussy’s Fêtes from the 3 Nocturnes, and a very fine performance of it to boot, I think it really left most of his audience more puzzled when it was finished than clued-in. He does, however, firmly impress the Dorian mode on them by illustrating that it simply uses all the white keys in an octave if you start at the piano on a D. He then ends the program with a repeat performance of Fêtes, this one even faster than the first—far faster than Toscanini ever performed it and, worse yet, very sloppy in note values. Just sayin’.

A Toast to Vienna in ¾ Time is pretty much just a concert showing different forms of triple meter, the highlight of which is a sequence of three songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn sung by Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, both overdoing their motions and facial expressions for the benefit of the young people in the audience. I was curious to see the Quiz-Concert if for no other reason than to hear what music Bernstein expected his young audience to know. I once owned a 1943 book of musical quizzes issued by RCA Victor which I failed miserably because many of the questions revolved around musical ephemera that most people today don’t even know, such as the song/aria “Brown October Ale” from Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood. But Bernstein’s quiz revolved around what he called “musical sensitivity,” how one reacted to music. He jumps in with the finale of the Brahms First Symphony, but then wants his audience to guess the composer’s name, nationality, dates, style and form of the next piece, which turns out to be Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro overture. Many of the kids got those answers right, but a lot failed on the next set of questions because they were trick questions. But Bernstein kept everything light and good-natured, and in the next section he conducted the wrong meter, dynamics, etc. and asked the audience to tell him what was wrong. But even the “hard” part of the quiz was pretty easy for anyone who had come to most of these concerts and/or was taking lessons on an instrument: major or minor scales, crescendo, diminuendo, chords, arpeggios, octaves etc. So this was a musical quiz that wasn’t too challenging.

Well, of course one of my favorite programs was Berlioz Takes a Trip, describing the Symphonie Fantastique as “the first psychedelic symphony.” Of course, Berlioz was on opium and not acid when he conceived this symphony, but the analogy was a pretty good one (and besides, as much drugs as Lenny took, he could probably have made a scientific comparison between cocaine, LSD and opium). But he did do an excellent job of analyzing and explaining the symphony despite the fact that, compared to the Beatles or Vanilla Fudge, much of his audience probably found Berlioz’ “mad” themes quite normal and sedate. My favorite line came from his introduction to the last movement: “There’s a man who told it like it is. You take a trip, you end up screaming at your own funeral.” In Two Ballet Birds, Bernstein compares and contrasts Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Stravinsky’s Firebird, or at least the suite from the latter. In a way this program, like so many others in this series, is a trip back to the days when music was meant to sound expressive and not like some soulless electronic instrument via “straight tone,” and although some of the music presented here certainly could use a more condensed orchestral texture—and surely less of Bernstein’s overwrought emotional interpretation—much of it is quite enjoyable. One interesting aspect of these lecture-concerts, for those readers who aren’t very familiar with Bernstein’s style or many of his recordings, is that the time constraints led him to give generally tauter, leaner, more structured performances than usual. Sometimes, as in the case of Debussy’s Fêtes, they are rushed a bit too much, but for the most part they are far superior to the general style he normally presented.

Bernstein’s presentation of Beethoven’s Fidelio presents four singers of whom I knew nothing: soprano Anita Darian, tenor Forest Warren, bass Howard Ross and bass-baritone David Cumberland. Darian was a singer and actress who spent most of her career at the New York City Opera, the “junior varsity” cousin of the Metropolitan. Two interesting footnotes to her career is that she sang wordless vocals with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra as well as the wordless high vocals on The Tokens’ hit recording of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Tenor Forest Warren just doesn’t exist online; when you Google his name, you pull up Leonard Warren, tenor Michael Forest and tenor saxist Warne Marsh. Howard Ross’ name pulls up a Social Justice Warrior who goes around the country telling people that they are showing “unconscious bias” even when they aren’t, just because he says so. Cumberland also sang at City Center Opera, where in one performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz he was knocked by the New York Times for his ineffectiveness. In this performance, Warren reveals a steady voice that is a bit tight and dry, with good phrasing and musicianship. But, boys and girls, what do all of these singers have in common? I’ll tell you. Not one of them wriggles around on the stage, waves their hands or arms in the air when they sing, and yet they actually interpret the text. Amazing! Yet of course it’s LENNY who does all the wiggling, jumping around and face-making. Not so amazing, just gauche. Both Darian and Ross sing well in the “dungeon scene” duet, with Darian acting quite well with her facial expressions as well. She’s much better than Inge Nielsen, the Leonore on the Naxos recording of Fidelio, but Ross is just OK—not bad but not great. Eventually we hear our Don Pizarro, Cumberland. He has the requisite black-sounding timbre for the role, and he acts very well with the text, but his voice lacked just that extra bit of power and emotional depth to make Pizarro truly scary. But the scene is saved by Darian, who was really excellent in this role, and at least the others give 100%. All in all, much more satisfying than I expected.

We’re back to black-and-white (and Carnegie Hall) for the next DVD, which features telecasts from 1960-61. The first of these, Unusual Instruments, ostensibly features Noah Greenberg, founder and director of the New York Pro Musica (according to the booklet), but he’s nowhere in sight, and the musicians who do play aren’t identified by name. The credits at the end of the show simply list them as “Musicians of the New York Pro Musica, Noah Greenberg, director,” from which Unitel extrapolated the idea that Noah himself was one of the performers. As for the Concerto for Tape Recorder & Orchestra by the duo of Leuning and Ussachevsky, it has form and shape but is essentially ugly, pointless music. Another example of a novel idea run into the ground, but nowadays—if the composers were British—they’d receive awards and be hailed as great geniuses. But this is nothing compared to the “remarkable” (so says Bernstein) Concerto for Kazoo and Orchestra by one Mark Bucci. And where is this masterpiece today? Why are no orchestra societies screaming for its revival? Well, largely because, kazoo or no kazoo, it’s essentially milquetoast lyrical music (GUCK music) that goes in one ear and out the other.

In Overtures and Preludes (1961), Bernstein hits the nail on the head when he says that such pieces are perfect for young people because they’re relatively short, rhythmic and tuneful. We do get Rossini’s Semiramide (an absolutely rousing performance) and Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 overtures, but I felt that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was a bit too soft-grained and harmonically dense for his audience (I remember being terribly bored by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel when in my sophomore year of high school), in addition to which Bernstein conducts it very slowly and full of goopy string portamento. One of the kids started clapping about 3/4 of the way through it, thinking it was over. Happily, he ends with his own Candide overture, which hits just the right tone. Aaron Copland’s Birthday Party, also from 1961, is a tribute to Lenny’s old buddy who, it seemed to me, was just a bit overhyped for his accomplishments in rewriting American folk music, though I did like some of his pieces—and here Bernstein does give us some unusual Copland, namely the earlier, more harmonically interesting excerpt from Statements and his jazz-influenced “Dance” from Music for the Theatre, though he then goes straight into the rewrites of folk music, ending with Copland himself conducting El Salón Mexico. The problem I have with Copland is not that he wasn’t a good composer, but once he latched onto recycling American folk and fiddle tunes and writing this wide-interval “Americana” stuff, he gave up on being a really great composer except for his opera The Tender Land. But he figured out which side of his bread was buttered, and who wouldn’t go for financial security and widespread popularity over being just another outstanding composer who can’t click with a large segment of the public? At least Bernstein gave his young audience some of the “thorny” Copland as well as the Americana stuff. Baritone William Warfield sang the folk songs with his powerful but uneven voice.

program for 1-15-1963

Program of the January 15, 1963 concert

The last DVD features Young Performers Nos. 4-6, dating from January and December 1963 and January 28, 1965. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is divided between three of the pianists—Joan Weiner, Claudia Hoca and Pamela Paul—while three different conductors lead the New York Philharmonic behind them (Yuri Krasnapolsky, Zoltán Rozsnyai and Serge Fournier). I found one Joan Weiner who is a clinical psychiatrist and another who is a stand-up comic, but alas, this Joan Weiner seems to have vanished. Claudia Hoca, who went on to become a noted pianist with the Buffalo Philharmonic, had her career ended by a serious auto accident in 2013. Pamela Mia Paul seems to have had the best career, winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition, performed both classic repertoire and modern music (hooray!) with major orchestras throughout America and Europe, and currently holds a professorship at the University of North Texas College of Music. As for the conductors, Krasnopolsky went on to a solid career, currently leading the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra; Rozsnyai, who was no spring chicken at the time (he was a week shy of his 37th birthday), had studied with Bartók, Kodáky and Dohnányi and conducting with Janos Ferencsik, worked with second-tier American orchestras in the 1960s before building the Knoxville Symphony into a first-class orchestra in the 1980s; while Serge Fournier, who struck me as clearly the most assured and exciting of the three, was taken under Charles Munch’s wing at Boston when he was not yet thirty yet he, too, ended up as music director of such second-tier orchestras as the Toledo and Oak Ridge Symphonies. To my ears, Paul was clearly the best of the three pianists, sounding less mechanical than Weiner and fierier than both Weiner and Hoca. She also leaned over the piano keys when playing, with a fierce look of concentration on her face, which is how I played the piano (of course, not with her facility) when I was still physically able. The Liszt Concerto No. 1 is conducted by Bernstein and played by then-16-year-old André Watts, who I always liked to a point but normally found better in flashy pieces than music requiring more depth of feeling. He did, however, play with a much better legato and sense of musical structure than Lorin Hollander or, most of the time, Horowitz. His performance, outstanding for a teenager, is as mature as the best performances and recordings I heard of him later in life. Watching him play here (I never saw him in person), I was struck by his broad, powerful shoulders from which he generated so much of his keyboard energy, much like Arthur Rubinstein, who I did see in person.

Young Performers No. 5 features harpist Heidi Lehwalder (the last pupil of legendary harp teacher Carlos Salzedo, now an internationally recognized star) playing a movement from a Handel concerto. Lehwalder is then joined by clarinetist Weldon Berry (who seems to have disappeared) and flautist Amos Eisenberg (who played with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and taught Gyorgy Sándor Farkas) to play Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro conducted by the then-30-year-old Claudio Abbado. His performance here is typical of his work throughout his career: clean, unfussy, yet lacking character or real feeling. It’s an excellent “shell” of a performance without heart or soul. Young Lehwalder, at age 14, clearly had technique up the wazoo but was not yet the great interpreter she later became. The others play well but not exceptionally.

Shulamit Ran

Shulamit Ran in December 1963

Our next performer is composer-pianist Shulamit Ran, who indeed went on to an outstanding career, in her own Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra conducted by Pedro Calderón. It’s a wonderful work, atmospheric yet well-structured, typical of her output over the decades. Cellist Stephen Kates, who plays a transcribed version of Bartók’s violin Rhapsody No. 1, Part 2 under conductor Zdenêk Košler, had a great pedigree—he studied with Gregor Piatagorsky, Leonard Rose and Laszlo Varga—and later placed third in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition and had a good solo career before dying of lymphoma at age 59. Kates also plays the solo cello part in the William Tell Overture, conducted by Bernstein, which closes the program.

The last show in this set, Young Performers No. 6, features pianist Patricia Michaelian, who has been a member of the piano faculty at the University of Washington since 1984 and has recorded Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Naxos, in the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Both she and Bernstein are simply terrific. Although I sometimes tore my hair out over Bernstein’s interpretations of Romantic repertoire, I always found his Bach, Haydn and Mozart to be first-rate (not so, always his Handel), and he gives the music an excitement and impetus it rarely receives today. The second soloist is violinist James Buswell, who has had a fine international career, made many albums, and was nominated for a Grammy for his recording of the Barber Violin Concerto, playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Bernstein wrapped up the program with an analysis and performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

So there you have it. On balance, a set worth getting for your classical-curious relative or friend of almost any age. Not every piece in every concert will grab everyone the same, but it sure beats sitting through a pedantic “music appreciation course” anywhere else in the universe!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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New Armenian Chamber Music

655646189451_Frontcover_Digital

AwardAVANESOV: Quasi Harena Maris. Selected Works from “Feux Follets” /Movses Pogossian, Ji Eun Hwang, vln; Morgan O’Shaughnessy, vla; Niall Ferguson, cel; Artur Avanesov, pno / ZOHRABYAN: Novelette / Varty Manouelian, vln; Scott St. John, vla; Antonio Lysy, cel; Avanesov, pno / PETROSSIAN: A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire / Manouelian, vln; Charles Tyler, cel; Avanesov, pno / ARTASHES KARTALYAN: Tekeyan Triptych / UCLA VEM Ensemble; Danielle Segen, mezzo / ASHOT KARTALYAN: Suite for Saxophone & Percussion / Katisse Buckingham, a-sax; Dustin Donohue, perc / New Focus Recordings FCR244

This CD of modern chamber works by Armenian composers gets off to a very strong start with Artur Avanesov’s Quasi Harena, a work that uses the strings in a microtonal fashion that reminded me strongly of the pioneering works of Julián Carrillo, even though there are moments when a tonal bias is present because the piano part is not modified towards microtonal playing. In addition, the melodic contours of this piece have a much stronger Eastern European sound than Carrillo’s scores. In addition, the music has even more development in it than Carrillo’s, and eventually moves from the quiet, atmospheric opening to some very powerful rhythmic playing at a louder volume that develops the theme brilliantly. The old adage says that you never get a chance to make a first impression, and this piece clearly impressed me very much.

Next up is Ashot Zohranyan’s Novelette, which reforms the timbres of a conventional piano quartet in sometimes new and interesting ways. The music is written in a slow tempo, as was Quasi Harena Maris, but moves in different ways and patterns, with the piano not being beard until the 3:30 mark when the music suddenly becomes much more atonal in character. Eventually, the piano part becomes busier and more prominent, acting as a foil to the soft, between-pitch whines of the strings. Any further description would spoil the surprises in store for you, so I will refrain from doing so.

Michel Petrossian’s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire is a querulous work, whimsical in the way he moves his materials around. The composer’s liner notes mention some cockamamie scheme whereby, in his mind, “the question of identity…seems a crucial one in our globalized and interconnected world.” No, sorry, Michel, it’s not much of a problem or terribly crucial. I am an American. You are an Armenian. Iranians are Iranian. Germans are German. Just because we can speak to one another and share interests does not confuse or erase our national identities, and that’s a good thing. We are a crazy-quilt of different races and nationalities, not a multi-national crayon where we are all mushed together. But back to the music: its playfulness and imagination in the handling of musical material. I especially liked the way Petrossian kept moving the stress beats around within each bar, which throws off the listener’s attempts to follow a regular rhythmic pattern. Another very imaginative piece.

By contrast, Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych is a lyrical piece, in a minor key but essentially tonal, in part because it features a singer, mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen, and in part because the texts by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan deal with love. But tonal does not always equate with banality, and in this work Kartalyan manages to introduce some very interesting harmonic touches without damaging the essentially tonal sound of the music. It’s extremely clever and thus touches both the mind and the heart. It also helps that Segen has an excellent voice with both a good, clear sound and pretty good diction. In a certain way, this little cycle bears a kinship with Canteloube’s famous Songs of the Auvergne.

Then we come, as John Cleese used to say, to “something completely different,” the Middle Eastern-sounding Suite for Saxophone and Percussion by Ashot Kartalyan, son of the previous composer. This is sheerly enjoyable music, one might almost say an island of cheerfulness and relative simplicity in an otherwise musically complex album. I enjoyed it tremendously. After the belly-dance first movement, the percussionist switches from drums to marimba to perform a fugue with the saxophone, yet the lightness of rhythm is still prevalent. In the third movement, just a hint of jazz rhythm permeates the combination of saxophone, marimba and occasional drums. The fourth is a much more lyrical piece while the fifth and last movement is an upbeat finale with another allusion to belly-dancing. A wonderfully entertaining (and well written) piece!

The album concludes with Avanesov’s piano excerpts from “Feux Follets,” played by the composer. This music is considerably different from Quasi Harena Maris, being lyrical and reflective, almost in the manner of “ambient classical” except with rather more meat on its bones. Some of the pieces, such as “Quand l’aubespine fleurit,” have rapid, double-time figures for the right hand with the feel of Eastern harmony about them.

Thus this disc turns out to be full of interesting music, well written and exceptionally well-executed by all concerned. Very highly recommended!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Kapustin’s Music for Saxophones

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KAPUSTIN: Quintet for Saxophones & Piano (arr. of Piano Quintet by C. Enzel).* Quartet for 4 Saxophones (arr. of String Quartet, Op. 88 by Enzel). Duo for Alto Saxophone & Cello+ / *Elisaveta Blumina, pno; +Peter Bruns, cello; clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet (Jan Schulter-Bunert, s-sax; Maike Krullmann, a-sax; +Christoph Enzel, a-sax; Kathi Wagner, bar-sax) / Capriccio C5369

It seems a bit odd that a composer whose work is so strongly influenced by American jazz has only actually written one work for the saxophone, that being the Duo that closes out this CD, but Christoph Enzel of the clair-obscur Saxophone Quartet managed to convince the now-aged composer (82 going on 83 years old) to authorize transcriptions of his Piano Quintet and String Quartet for that group of instruments. I was, to be honest, a little leery of how this would work out, in part because I am generally against transcriptions unless they are actually done by the composer him or herself, and in part because, to be perfectly honest, in a jazz-influenced musical environment the way one treats saxophones runs generally counter in terms of rhythm and rhythmic emphasis to the way one writes for strings.

To a certain extent, my fears were realized—not so much in how these sax players handled the rhythm as in the general “smoothness” of the writing as well as the very classical timbres of the soprano and alto saxes. Yet, in other ways, they allayed my fears because they do have a feeling for the jazz beat in those passages that call for it. Pianist Elisaveta Blumina, whose work I have praised quite highly on this blog, occupies a style somewhere in between the two worlds. She is not as loose rhythmically as Catherine Gordoladze, Daniel del Pino, Vadim Rudenko, Ludmil Angelov or Kapustin himself (I own a recording of the composer himself in the original Piano Quintet), playing more of a ragtime than a jazz beat, but within the context of the Quintet and with the help of the swinging saxes it’s not too much of a detriment. She at least tries as well as she can, and her technique is so fluid that it falls within the parameters of what Kapustin requires without hurting the music. Some of best moments come in the whimsical second movement of the Quintet, where her precise rhythmic approach is rather delightful and not too metronomic. Yet, ironically, it is in this movement that the sax quartet sounds the least jazzy, and I attribute this more to the music that Kapustin originally wrote for strings…as mentioned earlier, string writing, unless one is steeped in the tradition of such modern American jazz string groups as the Turtle Island Quartet or Poland’s equally jazzy Atom Quartet, is not going to swing like music initially conceived for saxophones.

If the reader thinks that I am marginalizing or dismissing these performances, he or she will be mistaken. I am nit-picking because I have a wealth of experience in listening to and evaluating jazz-classical hybrids, which I dearly love and wish there were more of. And I rush to point out that what happened here is not unique to the music of Kapustin. It is the reason I am generally against MOST transcriptions of classical music of all eras and styles from one instrument to another. Once in a while it works, but often it changes the coloration and impact of the music to such an extent that even the uninformed listener can sense that something is amiss.

In the fourth movement of the Quintet, Blumina plays very strong syncopations, which help to propel the sax quartet very well indeed. Yes, I would have liked a little more of a jazz feel in the fast right-hand runs, but she acquits herself well. And happily, the saxes have exactly the right feel for jazz syncopation, which helps propel the music with the right feeling.

In the saxophone version of the string quartet, ironically, there is less of a problem in the transference of a swing beat, largely because the clair-obscur Quartet has, as I mentioned, a fairly good idea of the jazz beat despite the ultra-pure tones of the soprano and alto saxes. By contrast, baritone saxist Kathi Wagner has a ball with the music, and in fact it is her sense of jazz time that helps to propel the entire group except in those obviously lyrical passages where a classical sense of time is more prominent. The concluding “Fuga” is perhaps the most formally classical of the four movements, but the quartet still manages to get a feel of jazz syncopation going in this music as well, with baritone saxist Wagner throwing in some neat slap-tongue effects.

The alto sax-cello duo is the one work on this album written for a saxophone, and happily cellist Peter Bruns seems to have some experience in playing jazz time, because he plays his instrument almost like a jazz bass (or at least like a jazz cello, reminding me of Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz). It’s a wonderfully imaginative piece, too, in which the alto sax plays almost continuous eighth-note figures while the cello prods him rhythmically, and occasionally our saxist, Christoph Enzel, puts some grit in his tone which helps to bring out the jazz connection very well. The second movement in particular (“Sonatina – Animato”) brings out some pretty nifty counterpoint while still having at least a foothold in jazz time.

In toto, then, an interesting album with good music from start to finish and some really good performances of it. I can only hope that someday, a jazz saxophone quartet with good technique and a jazz pianist with an equally good sense of jazz time tackles the Quintet or even the Quartet. Happy listening!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Trojahn’s Great Second String Quartet

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AwardTROJAHN: String Quartet No. 2 with Clarinet & Mezzo-Soprano / Thorsten Johanns, cl; Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mez; Minguet Quartett / Wergo 7383-2

Here is one of those recordings for which we should all bow down and be thankful that it exists. In a world that pays greater homage to formulaic modern music and especially the old-school stuff that gets rammed down our throats in buckets, we now have, at long last, a recording of a true modern masterpiece that was only written 40 years ago.

Manfred Trojahn (b. 1949) is not a composer who is well known, even within modern music circles, except for those in Germany. He began his studies in orchestral music, then took up the flute, composition and conducting, in that order. One of his principal composition teachers was György Ligeti, and it shows in his melodic structure as well as in his harmonic design. But unlike his other four string quartets, this one is truly an epic piece. As Trojahn himself says in the liner notes:

The commission was of course for a quartet with a conventional length of 15 to 20 minutes. But at some point, I noticed that what I was writing as a first movement began to take on dimensions with implications for the entire piece – if the first movement starts to grow toward 25 minutes, then you can imagine that the other movements will need to have similar durations to achieve a sense of balance… It is a very personal piece that is actually a kind of diary of my life at that time and immediately afterward.

Part of his inspiration came from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, which used a soprano to sing texts by Stefan George. Trojahn added a mezzo-soprano and clarinet to the second, fourth and fifth movements of his quartet, using texts by the poet Georg Trakl, who died in a military hospital near the beginning of World War I at the age of 27. The poems that Trojahn chose were In ein altes Stammbuch (In an Old Family Album), Der Schlaf (Sleep) and In Venedig (In Venice).

Although Ligeti’s influence is quite evident, Trojahn has obviously developed his own style from the same basic approach. Indeed, some of the music in the opening movement almost sounds like a cross between Ligeti and Schoenberg, and I was delighted to hear a fairly strong underlying structure in this music. It goes somewhere; it says something coherent; it is not just a collection of “shocking sounds” as in the case of so much new music nowadays.

Yet of course this opening movement is very angst-filled and clearly not for the squeamish. There are no comfortable moments; it consists largely of sharp, jagged figures that explode in your ear, and when the music does recede from the sound barrier it is no less edgy or more comforting. The late jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw thought that his band’s theme song, Nightmare, was a reflection of Picasso’s painting Guernica, but for me the first movement of this quartet is much closer to Picasso than Shaw’s minor-key jazz piece. This movement does not, in fact, go on for 25 minutes, but it does go on for 17 and that is surely long enough to set the tone for the entire work. There is a full stop at 6:55, at which point the music becomes slower yet in pace and the musical expression turns more legato and less staccato, yet the mood remains dark although at this point Trojahn has clearly switches over from a Ligeti influence to that of Bartók before returning to the Ligeti mode. Yet again, no matter how rapid or overwhelmingly dissonant the music becomes, Trojahn has a clear eye on how the music is “built” both structurally and expressively, even when a series of repeated dissonant, rhythmic chords are played near the end of the movement.

Minguet QuartettInterestingly, the remaining movements are really not as long as the first. The second movement runs 8:36, the third 5:58, the fourth (and loudest) 1:21, the fifth 8:50, the sixth only 32 seconds(!) and the seventh 13:34. Clarinetist Thorsten Johanns is an excellent musician with a rich, liquid tone and great expressivity. Mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has a nice tone, an overripe vibrato, yet good expression in her interpretation of Trakl’s texts. The words of the first poem, in English, are as follows:

You keep coming back, melancholy,
O meekness of the lonely soul.
A golden day is glowing at the end.
Humbly bends to the pain of
patient
Sounding of pleasant sound and soft madness.
See, it’s already getting dark.
The night returns and sues
mortal,
And another one suffers.
Shivering under autumnal stars
The head bends lower every year.

One thing that struck me was how Trojahn had the string quartet drop out completely in the opening lines of this poem; the only sounds you hear for more than a minute are just the mezzo and clarinet before the strings return, softly, underneath them. Perhaps because he was writing here for a voice, Trojahn’s music is more lyrical and, in places, even more tonal than usual, although the astringent chords played by the quartet beneath her are atonal indeed. It almost sounds, in a way, like “Mahler meets Schoenberg.” With the third movement, which again is purely instrumental, we return to Ligeti’s style. The music here is, if anything, even edgier and more biting than in the first movement.

The brief fourth movement again features the soprano and clarinet, but this time in loud, edgy music that matches the previous movement. Here the text is:

Cursed you dark poisons
White sleep!
This very strange garden
Twilight trees
Filled with snakes, moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the Sunset,
A dark corsair
In the salty sea of tribulation.
Fluttering white birds on the night hem
Over falling cities
Of steel.

In the fifth movement, which follows without a break, the mezzo sings:

Silence in the room at night.
The chandelier flickers silver
Before the singing breath
Of the lonely;
Magic rose cloud.
Blackish swarm of flies
Darkens the stone room
And it stares from agony
The head of the golden day
The homeless.
The sea stays motionless.
Star and blackish ride
Disappeared on the canal.
Child, your sickly smile
Followed me quietly in my sleep.

Here the music returns to a more legato style and a more tonal bias, but the voice and clarinet do not perform together as in the second movement. Rather, then alternate with each other, both voice and clarinet backed by high, edgy sustained notes in the violins. The very short sixth movement acts more like a brief, edgy interlude between the fifth and seventh, which opens with loud, edgy string tremolos before moving into much more abstract territory. Despite some lyrical interludes, the underlying tension remains consistent throughout the movement which even the frequent pauses in the musical flow do not disperse.

This is truly a masterpiece, one of those works that bear repeated listening to catch all the cross-references and continuation of musical material, brilliantly played (and recorded) by the Minguet Quartett.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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