Weinberg’s Clarinet Music

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WEINBERG: Clarinet Concerto. Clarinet Sonata.* Chamber Symphony No. 4 for Clarinet, Triangle and Strings / Robert Oberaigner, cl; *Michael Schöch, pno; Dresden Chamber Soloists; Michail Jurowski, cond / Naxos 8. 574192

The Weinberg discography continues to grow despite the efforts of most of the classical music establishment to shut him out of celebrations during his centenary year of 2019. Were it not for violinist Gidon Kremer and a handful of Polish musicians, Weinberg would not have been celebrated at all anywhere in the world though he is now universally regarded as one of the five or six most original composers of the 20th century.

None of these recordings are listed as world premieres, yet there don’t seem to be many rivals for the performances given here. One reason is that clarinetist Robert Oberaigner, though having a brighter and thus somewhat more generic timbre than that of Virginia Figueiredo, is an especially sensitive and thoughtful performer who really gets under the skin of these works. Not a note or phrase goes by one’s ear unnoticed or in a superfluous manner; he has really absorbed these works and knows what he is about. In addition, part of the excitement of these performances stems from the conducting of Michail Jurowski, older brother of the more famous Vladimir. Like his brother, Michail conducts not only with energy and drive but with a superb understanding of the flow and structure of the music, which helps things tremendously. Interestingly, one of Michael Jurowski’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory was Alexey Kandinsky, grandson of the famous artist and writer Wassily Kandinsky.

The duo of Oberaigner and Jurowski, then, give these works a very dramatic profile, something that Weinberg’s music simply cries out for. I was particularly struck by the straightforward drive and energy of the 1970 Clarinet Concerto; so much of Weinberg’s music, particularly his music post-1950, tends towards the kind of slower, more amorphous style that one hears in the second movement of this concerto.

Oddly, it is the Clarinet Sonata, written in 1945, that is the more intimate and amorphous music. It has a much less direct or linear construction and flow than the concerto, occasional outbursts by the clarinetist in a quasi-klezmer style, and a piano part consisting primarily of running, single-note figures in the right hand, with the left feeding chords. This is quintessential Weinberg: a little amorphous and hard to grasp both structurally and emotionally. The second-movement “Allegretto” has a more regular pulse but just as elusive harmony. It wasn’t that Weinberg wrote in an atonal style—he didn’t—but that his harmony was always shifting inside the chords in a strange manner, sometimes chromatically and sometimes sideways, which often undercut the listener’s ability to follow what was going on. Yet if one just listens passively, the music sounds a bit odd but somehow makes sense. Also typical of Weinberg is the slow final movement. Very few of his works end in a happy or triumphant manner.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Clarinet, Triangle & Strings was Weinberg’s last completed work, dating from 1992, though he was to live another four years. It is clearly the largest in form and structure, lasting more than a half-hour, and the triangle is heard only four times in the finale while a solo violin (played here by Federico Kasik) and cello (played by Friedwart Dittmann) also figure prominently. The opening movement of this work is, like so many of his compositions, slow and somewhat sad. The strings play what appears to be a brief repeated melodic line that sounds like an elegy; when the clarinet enters at 3:19, it plays a soft opposing melody using alternating eighth notes, which is then picked up by the strings and changed around a bit.

Weinberg gets more energetic in the second movement, but by sticking to what sounds like a minor mode the feeling is not so much happy as just a busier feeling of loneliness. Here, too, the solo clarinet squawks out some of its high notes almost as a plaintive cry for help. The ensuing section for the strings has a sterner feeling, like a resolution against loneliness, as if telling the clarinet to just calm down and accept being an outsider. The third movement begins with the clarinet over very soft murmurs by the basses while the solo cello plays an opposing melodic line, and we are back to a feeling of sadness.

Surprisingly, however, there is a glimmer of hope in the last movement where the clarinet plays a fairly lively theme against a background of static lower strings. Eventually, however, the slow strings take over, become louder, and tend to drown out the clarinet’s message.

An excellent recording, then, and a valuable addition to the Weinberg discography.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Westerberg & Goodman Conduct Lundquist

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LUNDQUIST: Symphony No. 2, “…for freedom.” * Symphony No. 9, “Survival” + / *Stockholm Philharmonic Orch., Stig Westerberg, cond; +Utah Symphony Orch., Roy Goodman, cond / Sterling Modern CDA3006 (live: *September 27, 1972 & +April 22, 1999)

These are the first official releases of historic performances of two symphonies by Torbjörn Iwan Lundquist (1920-2000), a modernist Swedish composer who wrote music “using a special technique, in which [a] large form is made from large musical blocks.”

Although his second symphony was not premiered until 1971, Lundquist admitted that he began it as early as 1956, when “we in Sweden found out the bloody defeat of the so-called Hungarian revolt. And it is a significant coincidence that similar things happened in Czechoslovakia in August 1968, at the time I was finishing the finale movement.” This is what your lovely Socialism brings to countries, boys and girls. Please take note. Socialism and Communism are governments you can elect into power, but you have to shoot your way out of.

Needless to say, it is a powerful, angst-ridden work, much like the Shostakovich Seventh and Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphonies, but Lundquist’s musical lexicon is different from theirs. Moreover, although he admitted using “large musical blocks,” these blocks are not simply lumps of astringent sound, as so many composers are addicted to today, but real themes developed and built upon. Thus the music not only has forward momentum but also forward movement, and despite its modern dissonances it is not terribly difficult to follow. Insofar as layout is concerned, Lundquist’s music is as clear in form as that of Brahms or Stravinsky. He did not follow in the more amorphous footsteps of Mahler, for instance, as some 20th-century symphonists did. Yet in its representation of the inexorable tread of soldiers and tanks, its first movement in particular seems to be a cousin of the first movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Interestingly, however, the symphony’s four movements are linked so that they sound like one continuous movement, and although the tempi vary somewhat the mood remains pretty much the same—grim—throughout.

Lundquist also seems to have had his own feel for orchestral color. He almost consistently uses very “close” scoring with frequent string and brass blends, which gave his orchestra an edgy sound even when the music itself was not always so. What this means is that, even in the soft passages, one always feels an undercurrent of unease if not specifically menace, which adds to the overall feel of the score.

The Ninth Symphony, subtitled “Survival,” is a one-movement work that the liner notes indicate is “an opera without words.” As for the title, they suggest that “it can be applied onto the matter of survival of the individual as well as humanity.” Although a Tenth Symphony was found after his death, this was his last published symphony, and in it once can clearly hear the use of an alto saxophone. The music is dramatic but not as heaven-storming as his Second; it sounds a bit more rugged as well as taking a slower pace, suggesting a dogged indomitability. Interestingly, the alto sax plays so prominent a role that at times it could be mistaken for a saxophone concerto. In this symphony, I also noted a greater use of counterpoint in the underlying music in addition to a stronger reliance on the tympani to urge the music forward in its more dramatic passages. I wonder, however, how much of the greater lyricism of this symphony is Lundquist’s intent and how much is due to the conducting style of Roy Goodman, who started out as a boy alto and thus had more of a connection to vocal music than Westerberg. Either way, it seemed to me an effective performance as it does not lack for drama or depth of feeling. Interestingly, this symphony fades away into silence at the end and, in a sense, almost seems too short—or, at least, somewhat inconclusive.

This is a particularly valuable album which complements Sterling’s previous release of his Third and Fourth Symphonies, one conducted by the composer and the other by Sixten Ehrling. Poor Lundquist is little known and promoted outside his home country, and this is a shame. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Figueiredo & Sanchez Play Latin Clarinet Music

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INTUCÍON / MARQUEZ: Zarabandeo. LOBATO: Clarinet Sonata (arr. Sanchez). SAGLIE: Psychological Morphologies According to Matta. D’RIVERA: The Cape Cod Files. / Virginia Figueiredo, cl; Lorenzo Sanchez, pno / Centaur CRC3740

This is a program of music for clarinet and piano by Latin American composers: Arturo Marquez, Domingo Lobato, Luis Saglie and the most famous name represented here, Paquito d’Rivera. Los Angeles-based clarinetist Virginia Figueiredo is an internationally active performer, recording artist, and educator who has toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia as a soloist and chamber musician.

FigueiredoThank goodness that most of this music is better written and more interesting than the rather trashy “classical tangos” of Astor Piazzola. From the outset, Marquez’ Zarabandeo has a lively beat and tempo allied to harmonically interesting and challenging music with interesting development. I was particularly impressed by Figueiredo’s playing; she has a firm, round yet fluid tone, not too dissimilar from that of Artie Shaw, and like Shaw she has an excellent grasp of rhythm. I wonder if she has ever played jazz or jazz-classical hybrids; she sounds as if she is made for such music. And happily, pianist Sanchez is also a lively performer who is with her every step of the way. Despite the fact that Marquez is a Latino composer, there are moments in Zaradandeo that somewhat resemble Klezmer music, in part due to the unusual, somewhat modal harmonies used. My sole complaint of this work is that it went on too long and didn’t add much to what had been said in the first four minutes.

Lobato’s Clarinet Sonata is an altogether more serious and less dance-like work, using descending whole tone chords and other harmonic “trap doors” to shift and change the harmony as it moves along. There are also a few moments in the piano accompaniment that, to my ears, simulate jazz rhythm, though these moments are transitory and do not last very long. Yet in a very real sense, Lobato develops his themes as much via rhythm as via harmonic or melodic variations, thus in the first movement alone one hears about six different rhythms, and the soloist’s cadenza moves through three different keys. The second movement begins with some very mysterious, almost Szymanowski-like harmonies played by the pianist, who continues playing solo for nearly two minutes before the clarinetist enters. The clarinet, playing in its lower register, caresses the ear with rich, warm, melodic phrases, after which the pianist attempts to liven up the pace—but the clarinet keeps protesting and leading the keyboard back towards calmer, more melodic lines. The third movement, which begins with the clarinet, is a lively piece that almost sounds like a hora except for its very Latin-sounding shifting of beats within the bar. Eventually, the clarinet plays an extended series of eighth-note runs as the music hurtles towards its conclusion.

Psychological Morphologies According to Matta combines Latin rhythms with some quite formidable atonality; it’s a strange mixture, but it works. In the first movement, Saglie also has the lead instrument play some figures that resemble klezmer as well as low-range growls. The music jumps around in an almost unsettling way, yet never loses its focus or direction. The second movement, though a slow one, is even stranger-sounding since Saglie employs similar devices within an entirely different mood and mindset. Needless to say, the brisk third movement, marked “Con fuoco,” is almost a rhythmic and harmonic free-for-all, with the clarinet striking out up and down the dissonant scale like a trapped rat trying to escape its cage while the piano jabs and stabs its own dissonant figures, chords and keyboard trills into the melee.

D’Rivera, of course, is a musician who has gone back and forth between the jazz and classical worlds for most of his career, and although there are moments of jazz rhythm in the first movement of his Cape Cod Files he keeps to a fairly strict classical layout in terms of theme statement (rather bitonal) and development. By 2:31, however, the pianist is clearly playing boogie woogie while the clarinet goes along for the ride. And here Figueiredo clearly shows her affinity for jazz rhythm, which I had suspected from the beginning of this CD. By contrast, the slow second movement is more lyrical and less jazzy than the first despite a lively use of rhythm. Interestingly, the third movement, titled “Lecuoneiras,” is an extended clarinet solo that opens lyrically but becomes livelier (and much more tonal, almost folk-song-like in structure) as it wends its way along. It undoubtedly helps that d’Rivera is also a reed player (clarinet, bass clarinet and alto sax), as his music shows a very deep understanding of what the instrument can and cannot do. The last movement brings the piano back and again alternates Latin and jazz rhythms in d’Rivera’s very clever mixture, at times using stepwise movement (initiated by the piano) to move the music along both harmonically and rhythmically. In the middle of the movement, Figueiredo plays a very Artie Shaw-like upward glissando, landing perfectly on her top note.

This disc was a very pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, but that was exactly what made the journey of discovery so much fun.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Jacques Hétu

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HÉTU: Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, Op. 78. Piano Concerto No. 2.* Trombone Concerto, Op. 57+ / *Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, pno; +Alain Trudel, tb; Orchestre Symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel, cond / Atma Classique ACD2 2793

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010) was a Canadian composer whose work tended towards the modernism of the 1930s and ‘40s, writing music that was largely tonal with some interesting underlying harmonies. The booklet notes put it this way:

Jacques Hétu’s astonishing accomplishment was to have survived and prospered while flatly refusing to belong to any coterie, cult, or school. Moreover, he succeeded in establishing himself as the Canadian composer whose works are most frequently played throughout the world.

He was a loner, independent and even unsociable. “What’s essential,” he wrote, “is not to look for some novel way of arranging sounds but to find your own way of thinking about music.” This was his creed, and he championed and exemplified it in every one of the 82 works he left us.

To a certain extent, Hétu’s music was so reactionary that some of it could be played on your local classical radio station and not ruffle any feathers, but its unusual melodic contours and consistently ingenious feeling for rhythm and orchestral color gave it some interest. This is evident in the opening piece on this CD, Sur les rives du Saint-Maurice, with its expansive melodic line modified by swirling wind figures and staccato interjections. He was also a master colorist, combining, you might say, the German-American sense of structure with a French ear for color.

The opening of his Piano Concerto is a perfect example of this. Opening with just the solo instrument, playing in a somewhat opaque, Impressionist style, the pianist slowly increases the volume before the orchestra enters, playing energetic but long lines behind it, later moving to a series of edgy string passages in double time with the brass playing slower but more impassioned figures underneath. It is the kind of concerto where the composer envisions a continuous line of music in which the piano is but one instrument used to advance the evolution of the score. A bit later on, the solo piano picks up on the edgy string phrases as the music evolves in that direction. Hétu uses some whole-tone scales in the ensuing piano solo portion of the first movement. In the last, Hétu throws in some whole-tone scales for interest.

The Trombone Concerto is altogether more strikingly dramatic, particularly at the outset, with the soloist playing some strange bitonal lines while string tremolos play in the background. This leads to a more energetic section with staccato trumpet figures as the music increases in both tempo and nervous energy. Hétu continues to play with tempo and rhythm throughout this first movement as the music develops, and often pushes the solo trombone into its lower depths. Alas, the second movement is more conventional and earthbound, while the third sort of meanders along in the beginning, only to pick up a bit, add some more string tremolos, and move on, but it sounds more formulaic and less inventive than the piano concerto.

So there you have it. To my ears, Hétu was a solid composer with some interesting ideas but one who fell into his own sort of rut. Some of the music here is quite interesting, other parts of it not so much.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Geri Allen’s “Some Aspects of Water” Reissued

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SOME ASPECTS OF WATER / ALLEN: Feed the Fire. Some Aspect of Water.1,2 Skin. KAHN-STYNE: A Beautiful Friendship. ROBISON-HILL: Old Folks.2 J. WINTHER: Smooth Attitudes1,2 / Geri Allen, pno; 1Henrik Bolberg Pedersen, tpt; 2Johnny Coles, Fl-hn; 1Kjeld Ipsen, tb; 1Axel Windfeld, tuba; 1Michael Hove, a-sax/fl/cl; 1Utte Markussen, t-sax/s-sax/bs-cl; Palle Danielsson, bs; Lenny White, dm / Storyville SVL1018474 (live: Copenhagen, March 15 & 17, 1996)

The late Geri Allen, who died in June 2017 at the age of 60, was an artist whose work I really enjoyed, and Storyville has now reissued her highly regarded 1996 album Aspects of Water. When it was first released in 1997, Jazz Times and Allmusic raved about it, so of course I wanted to hear it for myself.

Most of the album was performed by Allen in a piano trio format. Veteran horn player Johnny Coles appeared on three tracks playing Flugelhorn rather than his more familiar trumpet, and on the last two of these he was joined by a cadre of reed and brass musicians. But the focus was clearly on Allen as an improviser and, in three of the six pieces, as a composer.

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Original CD cover

I sometimes make comparisons between modern and older artists to help readers understand what I hear or heard in their playing that was similar, but for me Allen was a real original. Though clearly coming out of the bop school of Bud Powell, Horace Silver and perhaps even Jaki Byard (who really played all schools of jazz piano), her style was entirely her own, employing jagged lines that presented sometimes juxtaposed ideas, and even when her playing was a bit more linear her keyboard attack was actually more percussive than most bop and hard bop pianists. I know that I’m probably alone in saying this, but I never quite understood why Herbie Hancock was so universally embraced as a great jazz giant when you had players like Byard and, later, Allen, whose improvisations were so much more off-the-wall inventive. Yes, she became a jazz star in her lifetime but to my mind was never given her just due as one of those unique geniuses like Earl Hines or Art Tatum who constantly thought outside the box. I hear so many current jazz pianists on CDs receiving raves for their “innovative” playing (among them Fred Hersch and lots of lesser-known names), but truthfully, the only three jazz pianists I’ve heard in recent years who I feel are on the genius level of Allen are Arúan Ortiz, Ake Takase and Matthew Shipp—and that is some pretty high-level company to be in.

Note, for instance, how Allen could elevate a fairly routine standard like A Beautiful Friendship, making a truly different piece out of it and doing so in a way that was both inventive and musically logical. Ideas just poured out of her, some of them slightly outside the basic tonality of the music, yet when you heard them all in sequence as she played them they all made sense. If you were to take away her swinging beat as well as the bass and drums accompaniment and publish her music as a series of “variations on a theme,” Allen would be hailed as one of the most interesting of composers regardless of genre.

But of course her swing as well as her varied keyboard attacks were as much a part of her style as what she played, which makes her music all the more interesting, and the amazing thing is that she was gracious and modest about her gifts, seldom pushing herself as many male jazz pianists do. On these sessions she had a really excellent bassist, Palle Danielsson, whose solo on A Beautiful Friendship is superb, but as soon as Allen returns when he is done we know that we are on an even higher plane of improvisational genius.

I’ve written before about the rather dreary Willard Robison tune Old Folks and why I so heartily dislike it—it’s maudlin and banal. On this track, however, Allen is joined by another highly underrated jazz musician, the great Johnny Coles who had previously played with Charles Mingus, and his solo is a model of how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Allen feeds him excellent chords, some of them rootless, which also adds interest to this rather poor tune. By the time Coles is finished with it, it has been completely converted from a piece of musical chewing gum into a masterpiece. Although Allen plays a subsidiary role here, this is one of the standout tracks on this album, despite Coles throwing in a direct quote from Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time. The leader’s own solo, which follows his, is sparser and more minimal than usual for her but no less interesting. I noted, in this solo particularly, how brilliantly Allen used time and the parsing of beats even in this relatively “simple” chorus.

In the next two selections, Allen had a rich palette of sound to play with: in addition to Coles’ Flugelhorn, there was a trumpet, trombone, tuba and two multi-reed players, Michael Hove and Utte Markussen. As was often the case with her, Allen scored this band more in the Mingus manner, meaning as a sort of homogenous unit blending all of the instruments together than in the more conventional brass-versus-reeds setup. Once again, her fine ear for harmony led her to produce some genuinely interesting textures, over which her exciting and rhythmically diverse solos interacted like champagne poured over ice cream. Markussen took a nice tenor solo on Smooth Attitudes that complemented Allen’s playing behind him quite well, following which was a very interesting passage scored for flute and muted trumpet playing ingenious lines together. The title track is a more uptempo number, with Allen leading things off with a somewhat sparse, broken theme before suddenly diving into more complex playing. On this track, the horns are again scored in a way that blended the brass and reeds, but they play unison bop lines rather than richly-blended chords. I’m assuming that Pedersen was the trumpet soloist here since Coles is still listed as being on Flugelhorn; his playing is professional and competent without being particularly original. What was original, however, was Allen’s suddenly shifting gears around the four-minute mark to introduce a moody slow section, the melodic line here played in unison by the two reeds before the beat shifts once again—this time to a medium uptempo, funky sort of rhythm—behind Kjeld Ipsen’s trombone solo, which is pretty inventive in its own right. The ensemble following sounds almost exactly like something Mingus would have written. And, as usual, Allen’s own solo is a highlight of the entire track. Markussen’s bass clarinet solo is also quite interesting and a bit quirky, with some interesting metric shifts played behind him by the bass and drums as the rest of the band sits out this passage. In the latter part of this long piece, Allen played yet another complex solo of pure genius.

The album concludes with another trio piece, Allen’s original, Skin. It’s a fun piece with a sort of a calypso beat, the kind of piece that’s absolutely perfect for a sign-off. Once again, she shifted the meter once she got into the piece, playing fragmented lines that somehow managed to coalesce into a brilliant musical statement.

This is clearly one of the great jazz reissues of all time.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Norwegian Musicians Perform Berio

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BERIO: Coro for Voices and Instruments. Cries of London / Norwegian Soloists’ Choir; Norwegian Radio Orch.; Grete Pedersen, cond / BIS SACD-2391

I remember Luciano Berio mostly from the late 1960s, when he was still married to Cathy Berberian. A lot of his vocal music was crafted specifically for her because she was such an adventurous singer and would try anything—and “anything” certainly described the wide and sometimes bizarre arc of his music. Many critics, and the musical establishment, patronized him as a creator of shocking novelties.

Now here we are a half-century on, 17 years after Berio’s death, and apparently there has been a turnaround. He is now, quite rightly, viewed as one of the most interesting and adventurous composers of his time. Perhaps his brilliant new ending for Puccini’s Turandot, which he wrote in 2001, made them realize that Berio really did know his music—inside and out, in fact.

Coro, written in 1976, uses an ensemble of 84 musicians and singers: 40 voices, piano, electronic organ, 2 percussionists, 14 strings, 15 woodwinds, and 11 brass, arranged onstage with the chorus spread out rather than seated in a single block behind the orchestra. Berio specified four different groups of singers and musicians who interacted with each other in order to achieve “the maximum blending of different vocal and instrumental timbres.” He also paired each of the 40 singers with one particular instrument, creating a sort of “vocalorchestra.” More so than many of his works from the 1960s, Coro struck me as being closer in style and spirit to some of the work of György Ligeti, particularly Ligeti at his best. It opens with a lovely vocal solo by soprano Ditte Marie Bræin, and one later hears fine but brief solos from tenor Øystein Stensheim and alto Astrid Sandvand Dahlen, but it is the massed choral sound—and the astonishingly brash, almost metallic sound of the instrumental ensemble—that strikes one the most and stays in the mind. Needless to say, this is exactly the sort of work for which Bis’s SACD sonics are ideal, and it made me smile a bit to note that this music was recorded with rather less ambience than their discs of more conventional repertoire.

Of course, the singers’ English pronunciation has a slight Scandinavian accent, but it is excellently articulated and crystal-clear except when they sing as a mass surrounded by the often loud, metallic-sounding orchestra. The words come from several texts, two from the Sioux Indians, one from an Italian folk song, one from Gabon in Africa, and several poems by Pablo Neruda. To be honest, I wondered why Bis chose to divide this work over no less than 31 bands since the music is continuous and does not support excerpting very well.

But as the work progresses, Coro is about much more than just massed sound in the Ligeti manner. There is a particularly interesting soprano solo with violin (track 19, “It is so nice”) in a fast tempo with considerably intricate counterpoint, and in fact Berio consistently shifted his tempi, meters and focus.

Berio-Segerstam

Berio and Segerstam at Salzburg in 1977

There are three other recordings of Coro available, two of which should take your notice. The first is a 1977 live performance from Salzburg conducted by none other than Leif Segerstam (on Orfeo d’Or), this from the period when he was still thin, wild-haired, and sporting large horn-rimmed glasses. The other is the Deutsche Grammophon issue conducted by Berio himself. I’ve not heard either, but just from the names of the conductors I can assure you that they are performances worth hearing. As for me, I’ll take this one—without having heard Berio’s own version—simply because the SACD sound is so absolutely spectacular and this is exactly what Coro is about. (Just a thought: has Bis ever considered recording the Berlioz Requiem in their wonderful surround sound? If there is one work that cries out for this sort of treatment, particularly in the “Dies irae” when the four brass choirs play from different corners of the soundspace, this is certainly it.)

Unlike Berio’s own recording, on which Coro stands alone, this one is filled out with a performance of the 14-minute Cries of London, written in 1974-76 for the all-male British sextet The King’s Singers. Because of this—the King’s Singers generally sing old-timey music, not contemporary works—the writing is rather less complex though by no means retro in style. In this work, however, I found that the English diction of the Norwegian male singers was more distorted in vowel sounds and thus less distinct than it should have been, though the music is extremely interesting. In this performance, too, they substituted two each of sopranos and altos for the King Singers’ countertenors, which I didn’t really mind in and of itself, but the diction was a real impediment to my enjoyment.

A bit of a mixed review, then, but this SACD is highly recommended for the performance of Coro.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hrůša Conducts Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony

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SUK: Symphony No. 2 in c min., Op. 27, “Asrael” / Bavarian Radio Orch.; Jakub Hrůša, cond / BR Klassik BRK900188 (live: Munich, October 18-20, 2018)

In a world where everyone goes gaga over Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert symphonies, the sprawling musical canvas that is Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony gets short shrift. True, there are 11 other recordings out there, of which the best in my view is the classic 1967 account by Karel Ančerl, one of those conductors who never received his just due from collectors and critics, but in the concert hall it is only a very occasional visitor.

Here we have a new account by Jakob Hrůša, one of the younger generation of Czech composers (he was born in 1981, so at the time of recording he was but 37), and like the other more modern digital readings it has a warmer, richer sound than Ančerl’s classic account. Each of the five movements is longer, and thus conducted slower, than the Ančerl recording; the complete performance clocks in at 51:25 compared to Ančerl’s 46:24, and the latter’s CD also includes Iša Krejči’s interesting Serenata whereas Hrůša has no filler work on his CD.

Despite the slower tempi, Hrůša does not lack for excitement in the faster passages. I think you really do need to be Czech to give this music the kind of bite it needs, and the astonishing warmth of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra’s lower strings—and the powerful thump of the tympani—do come across better here. In many respects, then, this is a fine reading.

I was less convinced, however, by Hrůša’s constant decelerendos and rallentandos in the slow sections. This approach almost makes the music sound stylistically schizophrenic, as if Suk had chosen to write a symphony with multiple mood swings. In addition, it softens his musical message, which I also feel is wrong. It’s perfectly fine to convey emotion in those slow passages, as Ančerl did, but quite another thing to have the music wallow in bathos. This is particularly true in the slow second movement, which has little forward momentum in Hrůša’s hands but rather floats across the mind like ambient classical. Of course, this is sort of a trend nowadays in performance style of Romantic composers, even late Romantics like Suk who was clearly thinking in terms of more advanced harmonic constructions and shifting chord positions. Just recall how often Mahler has been softened in recent decades, not to mention Brahms. The Brahms symphony recordings of Weingartner, Rodziński, Munch and Toscanini almost seem to come from another planet, not merely from the previous century.

If, however, you buy into this concept of Asrael, you will undoubtedly be pleased by Hrůša’s reading. The recorded sound is quite forward and natural insofar as acoustics are concerned if a tad bit claustrophobic. I give it three fish: better than some but not as good as others.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Rediscovering Michael Rabin

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MICHAEL RABIN: A GENIUS ON THE VIOLIN / RAVEL: Tzigane (Rapsodie de Concert).1,5 PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1.1,6 SAINT-SAËNS: Havanaise.1,7 Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso.4 BRUCH: Scottish Fantasy.1,5 TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D.1,7 GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto in a min 1,6 WIENIAWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 1 in f# min.1,5 J.S. BACH: Solo Violin Sonata No. 3. BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 8.8 FAURÉ: Violin Sonata No. 1.8 DEBUSSY: Le plus que lente (arr. Roques).9 PROKOFIEV: Love for Three Oranges: March (arr. Heifetz).9 MENDELSSOHN: Violin concerto in e min.1,5 MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 4.2 CRESTON: Violin Concerto No. 23 / Michael Rabin, vln; 1Philharmonia Orch.; 2Denver Symphony Orch.; 3Los Angeles Philharmonic Orch.; 4Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orch.; 5Adrian Boult, 6Lovro von Matačić, 7Alceo Galliera, 4Felix Slatkin, 2Saul Caston, 3Georg Solti, cond; 8Lothar Broddack, 9Leon Pommers, pno / Profil PH20003

EMI Paganini coverPAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Michael Rabin, vln / EMI 67998, also available for free streaming on YouTube.

This new set from Profil is more or less a reduction of the six-CD set of all of Rabin’s concerto recordings, a set I have never heard, with the addition of two live performances from 1960. In fact, I admit to having heard of Rabin for at least the past 30 or so years without actually having heard him. I suppose that because prior to that his discs were relatively scarce in the record store bins and I sort of assumed that if he wasn’t a presence on classical radio—and he wasn’t—that much of what I heard about him was over-hyped. Thus, this is my first exposure to him.

Rabin ‘s father George was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. He began studying the violin at age seven, actually a little late for a prodigy, and after a lesson with Jascha Heifetz the older violinist recommended that he study with Ivan Galamian, who he said had “no weaknesses, never.” Rabin began studying with Galamian at the Meadowmount School of Music, a seven-week summer school founded by the latter in Lewis (mailing address Westport) New York and then followed him into Juilliard as his prize pupil. Rabin made his professional debut in 1950 at the age of 13 in Carnegie Hall, playing the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5 with the National Orchestral Association conducted by one of Toscanini’s protégés, Leon Barzin. Rabin returned to Carnegie Hall in November 1951, now aged 15, playing the Paganini D Major Concerto under Dmitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic. His career was well and truly launched, and over the next 12 years he went from triumph to triumph. At one Carnegie Hall recital in the late 1950s, however, he suddenly lost his balance and fell forward. This was an early sign of a neurological condition that limited his career after 1962. He eventually had to severely limit his public playing, stopped recording in1960, and died in January 1972 at the tragically young age of 35, when he fell in his apartment, hit his head, and suffered a concussion. Violinist-critic Robert Maxham has reported that the New York Times obituary, which said that he died from an epileptic seizure, is not true.

RabinWikipedia, from which I gleaned the information in the above paragraph, describes Rabin’s style as “Romantic,” but although he played many of the 19th-century works that formed his core repertoire with a warmer tone than Heifetz—and just a bit more prominent (but quick) vibrato—his style, to my ears, was no-nonsense. Rabin exhibited none of the lingering quality which such earlier violinists as Erika Morini tended to display, but was very much in the Szigeti-Heifetz mold except for his warmer tone. And by God, was he a dazzler with technique! I’ve seen reviews written online that compare him, particularly in the Paganini Caprices, to Heifetz, but I can only liken him to the younger Heifetz of the late 1910s through the late ‘20s, when his playing was rather fierier than that of the 1930s and ‘40s. Rabin seemed to combine, at least to my ears, the best qualities of both Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin, which for me puts him in a class with the equally tragic Guila Bustabo, who sadly left us far fewer recordings due to her mother’s horrid demand that she perform almost exclusively in Nazi-run countries during the 1930s and ‘40s. Like Bustabo, Rabin played with an almost manic fire, almost tearing up the strings of his instrument with the most incredible spiccato, double stops and other devices that often drive young violinists to despair. Indeed, Rabin’s recording of the Paganini Concerto No. 1 compares favorably to Bustabo’s version in terms of technique and fire, though conductor von Matačić conducts the music more slowly than Fritz Zaun did for Bustabo (or Michel Sasson for Alexandre Dubach on Claves). Von Matačić also conducts a fairly staid version of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, not nearly as good as on either of Bronislaw Huberman’s performances.

Thank goodness Rabin became world-renowned at such an early age, else we would surely not have such a large legacy to enjoy, at least not in terms of well-engineered commercial recordings with the renowned Philharmonia Orchestra in their prime (when both concertmaster Manoug Parikian and first horn Dennis Brain were with them). One thing I noticed in his playing was his absolutely perfect pitch, so accurate in fact that, especially in Paganini, those extreme high-range passages almost sound like dog whistles despite the fact that his tone is still quite full even way up high. The recording technology of his day simply could not capture the extremes of his altissimo playing with complete accuracy.

Rabin used portamento sparingly, and only when the score called for it. In this respect, too, he was closer to Heifetz, Szigeti and Bustabo, and not a progenitor of weepiness or sentimentality. Perhaps one reason why Rabin was not quite as highly touted during his active career as he has been since his death is that he still had Heifetz (and Menuhin, as well as David Oistrakh) to contend with, and they weren’t going away just yet. Had he lived a normal lifespan, I think he would surely have inherited Heifetz’ mantle after the older violinist retired in 1972. Also, had Rabin not had to severely limit his playing after the early ‘60s, I’m sure that Heifetz would have included him as second violinist in his chamber music recordings for RCA in 1966-68, which would also have furthered his reputation.

One thing I want to dispel right now is the ugly rumor, which has circulated for decades, that Rabin suffered from mental illness. I heard this several times during the late 1980s and 1990s, usually passed around verbally by musicians but occasionally in print, and it’s just not so. But Rabin did suffer from depression, caused in part by his overbearing mother and partly because he was never allowed to live a normal life and date women but had to practice six to eight hours every day. This led to his being put on a string of anti-depressants such as Miltown and Valium, which may also have led to his vertigo problems. As for his repertoire, he was locked into Romantic works because, as he often complained in interviews, that was what the impresarios insisted on, thus he felt really honored when modern American composer Paul Creston dedicated his Second Violin Concerto to him, and that is on this album, too. This was one reason why he refused to renew his EMI contract, but instead switched to American Capitol. One piece that I really felt was rather superfluous to include here was the inferior (and rather long) Bruch Scottish Fantasy, which is in-one-ear-and-out-the-other garbage music, even when played by an artist of Rabin’s stature. On the other hand, he made more of the often over-romanticized Glazunov Concerto than most violinists do.

CD 3 consists of works with piano: the Bach Sonata No.3 for solo violin, the Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 8, the Faure Sonata No. 1, Debussy’s La plus que lente and Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, along with the orchestrally-accompanied Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso of Saint-Saëns with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Rabin plays the Bach Sonata in a very Romantic style that is now quite dated, though it was considered valid in his time, with smooth, rounded phrasing and less aggressive attacks. It’s OK, but not nearly as lively as the recording by Tomás Cotik on Centaur. I wish that Profil had included his excellent recordings of the Ysaÿe Solo Violin Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4 in its place. By contrast, however, the only thing dated in his performance of the Beethoven sonata is the sound quality, particularly the odd, tubby sonics surrounding pianist Lothar Braddock, a name that seems to have slipped into obscurity though he plays very well. This is as lively a performance of this work as you’re likely to hear, on a par with the superb Henri Temianka-Leonard Shure Beethoven sonata cycle and a much better credit to Rabin than the Bach sonata. The Faure sonata, also with Braddock, is played with similar intensity. Rabin’s rhapsodic cries of ecstasy in the third movement are particularly moving. The Saint-Saëns is very well-played, and truth be told, Felix Slatkin was a better conductor for the orchestral repertoire than von Matačić. Between Slatkin and Rabin, the music really takes off in a way I’ve never heard in any other performance. It almost sounds like a Heifetz-Toscanini performance, except in stereo sound. Les plus que lente is quite good, the Prokofiev March lively and jaunty.

The last CD opens with a fairly good account of the Mendelssohn Concerto, well conducted by Adrian Boult with plenty of energy albeit slower than I normally like to hear it. The Mozart Fourth Concerto is a live performance from 1960 with the Detroit Symphony led by one Saul Caston, a name new to me. Caston was apparently an associate conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra under both Stokowki and Ormandy who assumed control of the orchestra in 1945, succeeding Horace Turman who had retired due to illness. Caston leads a solid, no-nonsense performance, but it is Rabin who sounds lively and emotionally involved. If anything, playing “live” brought out, you might say, more of his “Paganini side” than the somewhat staid EMI studio concerti.

Our survey ends here with the live performance of the Paul Creston Violin Concerto, conducted by no less a figure than Georg Solti with the LA Philharmonic. This is the roughest-sounding of all the recordings in this set, not only thin and shrill but with considerable tape noise. I think it might have been recorded on a portable machine by someone in the audience. Creston was a composer whose music used constantly shifting chord positions beneath a lyric top line that tended towards bitonality. His Frontiers was one of the few modern American orchestral works performed by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, but this 1960 work is even more harmonically advanced, and Rabin absolutely revels in it. The engineers at Profil could have done considerably more to clean up this recording than they did; I was able to restore more body of sound and reduce the surface noise significantly with my little $50 audio editor (GoldWave), but thank goodness it exists. It is clearly one of the high water marks of Rabin’s entire discography. The last movement is especially interesting, with Creston using opposing rhythms in the violin and orchestral parts, Strange as it may seem, Solti’s muscular conducting style is perfect for this work.

Warner Classics’ Icon: Young Genius of the Violin set runs six CDs and includes a few key recordings not available in this one, such as the two Ysaÿe solo Violin Sonatas, the Wieniawski Étude-Caprice, and of course the complete Paganini Caprices, but as mentioned in the headnote you can listen to his complete set of the Paganini Caprices for free on YouTube, and the Warner/EMI set lacks the Creston Concerto which is a live performance and not a studio recording.

For me, then, this set, to which I would add the Paganini Caprices, is almost an ideal representation of Rabin. I would, however, replace the rubbishy Scottish Fantasy with his recordings of the two Ysaye Sonatas, Scriabin’s Étude Op. 8 No. 10, the Sarasate Zapateado and Habanera and the Paganini Moto Perpetuo (the latter with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra). Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jason Palmer’s Concert Album

Jason_Palmer_Cover_Jimmy_Katz

AwardTHE CONCERT: 12 MUSINGS FOR ISABELLA / PALMER: A Lady and Gentleman in Black (Rembrandt). Cortege aux Environs do Florence (Degas). La Sortie de Pasage (Degas). Christ in the Storm in the Lake of Galilee (Rembrandt). A French Imperial Eagle Finial (French sculpture). Chez Tortoni (Manet). Program for an Artistic Soiree (Degas). An Ancient Chinese Gu. The Concert (Vermeer). Landscape With an Obelisk (Flinck). Self Portrait (Rembrandt). Three Mounted Jockeys (Degas) / Jason Palmer, tpt; Mark Turner, t-sax; Joel Ross, vib; Edward Perez, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm / Giant Step Arts GSA 004 (live: New York, May 23-24, 2019)

Trumpeter Jason Palmer, whose debut album on Giant Step Arts I raved about in an earlier review, presents here a musical tribute to the 13 works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. These paintings were never found, nor were the thieves. Twelve of the 13 are represented here in his music.

Vermeer The Concert

The Concert (Vermeer)

One of the reasons I like Palmer’s music so much is that, in addition to being innovative jazz with excellent solos all round, his compositions have real shape and form. Even the most fragmented melodic lines, as for instance in the opener (A Lady and Gentleman in Black), are developed clearly in his and his bandmates’ solos. Palmer himself is clearly from the school of Gillespie and Brownie, which in itself is a good thing; he has an incredibly range on his instrument, yet every note is perfectly centered and placed so that it makes its impact without his having to resort to screaming or overblowing. His bandmates also have a clear sense of design and form when they play, particularly tenor saxist Mark Turner whose sense of structure is on a par with that of the leader.

Cortege Degas

Cortege aux Environs do Florence (Degas)

Without having seen the paintings on which these pieces are based, I couldn’t say much about how well they capture the feeling of the artwork, but I have located images of some of them and have posted them here for your edification. Palmer’s music is certainly atmospheric and very creative. Cortege aux Environs do Florence has a rather delicate tracery in its melodic line that is very attractive, and once again the music has a very definite form. I suspect that Palmer must also have an interest in and some knowledge of classical music, even if just contemporary classical, because his ability to come up with interesting lines and even more interesting (and often moving) harmonies behind them bespeaks someone who is a real student of music. This track also has a very nice vibes solo by Joel Ross. La Sortie de Pasage is a gentle piece in which a melody with a feeling of 3/4 is played against a steady 4 rhythm.

La sortie de pesage Degas

La Sortie de Pasage (Degas)

Rembrandt Christ in the Storm

Christ in a Storm in the Lake of Galilee (Rembrandt)

Christ in a Storm in the Lake of Galilee is one of the more curious pieces on this album, starting out with a rather long drum solo by Kendrick Scott that is both simple and complex, followed by the theme statement played by Ross before Palmer and Turner enter with a series of staccato chord interjections. The leader then embarks on his solo, which creates its own sort of theme, followed by Ross and then Turner. Perhaps due to the implication of a storm, the music here is more fragmented, with less overall shape than the preceding pieces. Towards the end of the piece, Palmer introduces a fast, serrated melodic line played by himself and Turner upon which he and the others improvise.

A bronze eagle finial [French]

A French Imperial Eagle Finial

Having seen the sculpture on which it is based (see photo), I’m not as certain about A French Imperial Eagle Finial except that it seems to be, like the preceding piece, a more abstract view of the art than some of the other pieces. This is in sort of a fast samba beat, again with a very minimal melodic line but several interesting extended solos. Palmer’s own seems to be compiled here of short riffs followed by extended fantasies built on those riffs.

Manet’s Chez Tortoni, a painting of a middle-aged man sitting at an outdoor café, begins with a rather delicate, somewhat slow-moving pizzicato bass solo before moving into a quasi-Latin beat with a quirky but interesting melodic line. When Palmer enters for his solo, following a rather lyrical one by Ross, he is almost exploding with jagged, high-lying lines. Turner emulates his jaggedness but in a lower register and with quite different results, but that doesn’t stop Palmer from continuing in this vein in his second solo. In An Ancient Chinese Gu, there is some very clever meter-changing from 4 to 3 behind the solos.

Chez Tortoni

Chez Tortoni (Manet)

It would, perhaps, not be that helpful to describe all of the pieces here in so much detail, as it might detract somewhat from the first-time listener’s enjoyment. Suffice it to say that all of the pieces here have their own interesting twists and turns, and all are different. This is the mark of a first-rate composer, regardless of musical genre.

The Concert is a two-hour journey in sound through the musical mind of Palmer, and that in itself is worth hearing. This album is extraordinary in every respect.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Paul Shaw’s Moment of Clarity

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SHAW: Heartland. Shapeshifter. Song for Everyone. Mary Oliver. Peekaboo. Moment of Clarity. Showdown / Apex Sipiagin, tpt; Brad Shepik, gtr; Gary Versace, pno; Drew Gress, bs; Paul Shaw, dm / Summit Records DCD 763

Veteran session drummer Paul Shaw makes his debut here as a leader on Moments of Clarity with seven original tunes played by a highly skilled quintet which includes star trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. The music is largely straightahead jazz, and I was particularly pleased to hear that guitarist Brad Shepik plays in a jazz style and not in a rock style.

As is often the case nowadays, the melodic structures of these pieces are ambiguous, really just a series of licks or motifs, and not memorable in any way. The real delight lies in the quality of the solo work, which is on a generally high level throughout. It’s the kind of jazz that I enjoy hearing now and then without getting really involved in the musical structure, a straightahead blowing date. The only problem, for me personally, is that without strong musical structures the solos emerge as isolated moments of excellent playing without really having anything to build around, though there is a nice trumpet-guitar interlude in Heartland that I enjoyed very much.

As good as Shepik and pianist Gary Versace are, I found myself admiring Sipiagin’s solos most of all. He has a firm, attractive tone with a rich center and always seems to have something fresh and interesting to say. I was also very happy to hear that Shaw is a drummer who produces a solid beat rather than skirting around the edges with amorphic and often out-of-tempo playing. In Shapeshifter he varies his beat considerably—he is not metronomic—while still retaining a basic metric shape. Versace has a particularly nice single-note solo on this one as well. Sipiagin and Shaw also produce outstanding solos here as well.

Song for Everyone is a sort of ballad with a rather sad and plaintive melodic line. Bassist Drew Gress plays a nice bowed solo at the outset, with interjections by Sipiagin, before Versace plays a minimal solo. Mary Oliver is another quiet piece; I feel it was a mistake to program two slow pieces back to back, and this one I found rather boring.

Peekaboo is a sort of slow-funky piece with a melody consisting of running chromatic eighth note figures, but the beat changes to a straight four when Gress enters with his bass solo, and changes again to an uptempo swing beat for Sipiagin. In this case, the opening theme was an interesting one, but Shaw and the band simply discarded it in lieu of the solo work, good as it was, until it suddenly reappears in the last chorus.

Moment of Clarity is another somewhat slow, ominous-sounding piece. Again, good solos abound, but again, the theme isn’t much to build on. I did, however, like the closer, Showdown, very much. Again, it’s kind of a straightahead piece but with a kind of funky beat to it that I enjoyed very much, and Sipiagin is pretty much cut loose here and allowed to dominate the track, which he does not so much in terms of solo space, which he shares with the others, but in terms of how memorable his contributions are.

I liked Moment of Clarity for its strong and interesting solo work and think you will, too.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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