Gottlieb Wallisch Plays Foxtrots!

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20th CENTURY FOXTROTS 1 / KRENEK: Potpourri from “Jonny Spielt Auf”: Shimmy; Blues; Tango. Foxtrot from “The Leap Over the Shadow.” BITTNER: Shimmy on the Name “Bach.” BENATZKY: 3 Pieces from the Ballet “The Five Wishes”: Flirt, Slowfox; Boston, “L’heure bleue”; Tango macabre. MITTLER: Foolish Spring (Foxtrot). GROSZ: Shimmy and Tango from the Tanzspiel “Baby in the Bar.” KRAUSS-ELKA: “Thannhäuser” Foxtrot, “Song to the Evening Star.” EISLER: Shymmy-tempo. PETYREK: Arizona-Foxtrot. Illusion, Foxtrot. JEŽEK: Bugatti Step. “Echoes of the Music Hall” Foxtrot. HÁBA: Four Dances. MARTINŮ: Foxtrot. One-Step. Black Bottom. JIRÁK: The Kingdom of Heaven – Slow-fox (Blues). WEINBERGER: Matěj Poctivý: City Shimmy. SCHULHOFF: 2 Excerpts from “Groteske”: Valse Boston. Shimmy Fox / Gottlieb Wallisch, pno / Grand Piano GP813

Here is yet another jolly collection of American dance music/classical hybrids, played by Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch. And once again we note that the majority of these composers (but not all…Bohuslav Martinů and Felix Petyrek got them right) have given their pieces silly names that the Europeans of their time assumed were American dance forms. In addition to the maddeningly elusive “Boston” and “Slowfox,” American dance forms that never existed (in addition to one “Bugatti,” whatever that is), and of course the tango, which was never an American dance form except as an acknowledged exotic import (and never a jazz genre), we now get the “Shimmy.” Yes, there was a 1919 song by Armand J. Piron and Clarence Williams titled I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate and the even earlier (1917) Shim-me-sha-wabble by Clarence’s brother Spencer Williams, but although the “shimmy” was a subgenre of belly dancing (look it up) used for a brief time by flappers, it was quickly replaced by the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

Fortunately Wallfisch is a pianist who has some rhythm in his soul, thus he attacks these pieces with relish, having so much fun with them that they’re infectious. And hey, he throws in a tango. One of the more intriguing pieces is Julius Bittner’s Shimmy on the Name “Bach,” in which he manages to quote the famous note sequence spelling out Bach’s name—Bb, A, C, and B natural—nine times…but it’s not a tribute to Johann Sebastian but, rather, to contemporary music critic (and jazz enthusiast) David Josef Bach. I’m sure you all remember him…the swinging Bach! (Or perhaps the one who had to use the Bach door!) “Flirt,” by famed operetta composer Ralph Benatzky, is another one of the more intriguing compositions in this set, yet the same composer’s Boston, “L’heure bleue” is just a sentimental waltz and not a foxtrot at all, and his Tango macabre is neither jazzy nor very interesting, just a dumb repeated tune. Franz Mittler’s Foolish Spring is just a silly ragtime piece, sounding like something a silent movie pianist would play to a Charlie Chaplin film of the time.

I’m sure that some readers may think that I’m over-reacting to this music, that it was just written for fun and should be listened to the same way, but when you get deeper into this collection and hear what such master composers as Martinů and Schulhoff were able to do with American dance forms and rhythms, you realize the difference between effluvium and real art. Most of this collection is a series of little bonbons or desserts, but with patience you eventually reach the real meat and potatoes. Still, it was fun to hear Leopold Krauss-Elka’s Thannhäuser-Foxtrot, but he puzzlingly subtitled it “Song to the Evening Star” although the music parodied is clearly the Pilgrim’s Chorus.

The first somewhat meaty piece we get is Felix Petyrek’s Illusion, Foxtrot and Arizona-Foxtrot with their odd harmonic changes, but Jaroslav Ježek’s Bugatti-Step is also full of little musical twists and turns, not to mention some very tricky digital manipulations. The same composer’s Echoes of the Music Hall Foxtrot is a bit less difficult technically and musically, but still meatier than many of the preceding pieces. We really get rather deep with Alois Hába’s Blues, which technically really isn’t a blues at all (no flatted thirds are used) but which limns the edges of the form with some really tricky chord positions. Hába also pulls off a similar result in his “Boston,” a supposed American dance form that didn’t exist. Conversely, these very early, light pieces by Martinů (written in 1920-21) scarcely scratch the surface of the very sophisticated jazz-classical hybrids he wrote in the 1940s despite a few (very few) subtle harmonic twists. There are, however, some really intricate rhythms in his One-Step. Karel Boleslav Jirák’s The Kingdom of Heaven is also quite sophisticated harmonically.

We conclude this excursion with two pieces from Erwin Schulhoff’s Groteske, the “Valse Boston” and “Shimmy-Fox.” The first, of course, being a waltz has absolutely nothing to do with foxtrots, but the second is a “shimmy” and Wallisch plays it so well that I wish he’d give us an entire album of Schulhoff’s jazz-influenced pieces. His were the most harmonically sophisticated of all.

So there you go. A fun album overall with a few hearty side dishes but also a lot of chocolate éclairs.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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