Barbara Hannigan’s Latest “Passione”

Hannigan

LA PASSIONE / NONO: Djamila Boupacha for Soprano Solo. HAYDN: Symphony No. 49 in f min., “La Passione.” GRISEY: Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil / Barbara Hannigan, sop/cond; Ludwig Orch. . Alpha 586

Good old crazy Barbara Hannigan, famous for dressing up like a slutty schoolgirl and chewing gum as she sings Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre (as well as singing Berg’s Lulu while cavorting around the stage on pointe in toe shoes!), returns to give us three pieces—two modern and one quite old—forming “a triptych: 3 images, three perspectives of transfigured nights.”

The first of these is Luigi Nono’s “station of La Passione” about an Algerian freedom fighter, Djamila Boupacha, against the French occupation of her country. Born of an illiterate French-speaking father and a mother who did not speak French, she worked as a hospital trainee but was prevented from getting a trainee’s certificate because of her race and religion. After attempting to bomb a café in Algiers in 1960, she was arrested along with and her father and brother-in-law. The police forced a confession out of her via rape and torture. Her trial drew the attention of Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi, both of whom lobbied for her release. Originally sentenced to death in June 1961, she was freed under the Evian Accords on April 21, 1962. As of this writing, she is still alive (source: Wikipedia).

The poem used for the lyrics to this Nono piece was written by de Jésus Lopez Pacheco:

Lift this centuries-old fog
from my eyes.
I want to see things
as a child does
It’s sad to wake each morning
and find everything the same.
This night of blood,
the unending mire
A day must dawn,
a new day.
The light must come,
believe what I tell you.

Naturally, a poem this sort could never be stretched out to fit a piece that is five minutes long, so Nono uses not only very stretched-out note lengths but also some moments of wordless vocal. The music is atonal but very interesting and creative, alternating the edgy moments with ones of surprising lyricism within a tonal framework. The singer is required to sing within an extraordinarily wide range, going up into the soprano stratosphere as well as down into what one would normally consider the mezzo range. I’m not sure whether this was Nono’s intention or Hannigan’s artistic choice (probably the former), but much of the music is focused on the vowel sounds, the consonants being sung softly without hard attacks. It is a fascinating piece.

Hannigan then conducts a performance of Haydn’s 49th Symphony, titled “La Passione,” in a style that harks back to the good old days when conductors actually used continuous legato phrasing in slow movements. I would assume that the Ludwig Orchestra, a Dutch organization formed in 2011, is using straight tone in the strings (don’t they all nowadays?), but their elegance of style and phrasing makes the results very satisfying to listen to. Of course, since Hannigan is the conductor here, some of this, too, may have been her artistic choice. In the liner notes, she describes this symphony as “a universal ritual for loss and grieving, beyond a single figure. The symphony is a journey of souls: the ones enduring on earth and the ones who have departed.” I was struck by the resemblance of the slow first movement to the music of Gluck or even mid-period Beethoven. A remarkable work, given a remarkable performance. The “Allegro di molto” second movement has an almost manic bite and drive, as does the last movement.

Then we come to Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil (Four Songs to Cross the Threshold). In Hannigan’s words, it is “Confused, tender, angry and curious…full of breath and rhythm, otherworldly tunings of the spheres, and cries into the abyss.” Grisey, who died in November 1998 from a ruptured aneurism at the age of 52, was a major pioneer in a field that others called “Spectral music,” though both Grisey and fellow-composer Tristan Murail rejected that label as simplistic and fetishistic.

The entire work, which runs 40 minutes, is divided into five sections, the first and fourth being the longest. The chamber orchestra accompaniment, really a small chamber group consisting of brass and winds (mostly playing softy, and muted, in their lower registers), plays bitonal but lyrical music while the soprano soloist sings short, breathless, staccato phrases to a poem by Christian Guez-Ricord (the first) and texts from the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire (#2), an excerpt from Erinna (#3) and “The death of humankind” from The Epic of Gilgamesh (#5). It is indeed a strange work, haunting and moving. Occasionally the tuba, bass clarinet and horn grunt out louder, more threatening notes, increasing the feeling of doom, but these come later on, near the end of Part 3 (track 8) and beyond. There are also occasional and very soft percussion effects, introduced at the very beginning and elsewhere almost like some sort of dubbed-in ambient sound. These are evidently not meant to sound overtly threatening except when they become much louder in track 9 but, rather, an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty.

What’s interesting about this disc is that it could have been timed to coincide with the Covid19 outbreak which is now frightening the world, but since Hannigan recorded this album in June and July 2019, months before the first outbreak in Wuhan province, she could not have known it was coming. In any event, the primary mood of this CD is dark and bleak. You had best be in a good frame of mind before you listen to it, but it is surely a rewarding and fascinating experience.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pereira’s Blindfold Test Presents Visions for Rhythm

Vanderlei-Pereira-Cover

VISIONS FOR RHYTHM / MOREIRA: Misturada. PEREIRA: Ponto de Partida. O Que Ficou. De Volta à Festa. Vision for Rhythm. FERRAGUTTI: Chapéu Palheta. PLAUT: Mercado Modelo. LAURIA: The Cry and the Smile.* ADOLFO: Partido Leve. POBO: Corrupião . SINGH: Les Matins de Rixensart.* FREITAS: Alma Brasiliera* / Blindfold Test: Rodrigo Ursaia, t-sax; Susan Pereira, voc/perc; Jorge Continentino, fl/pifano/t-sax; Deanna Witkowki, pno; Paul Meyers, gtr; Gustavo Amarante, *Itaiguara Brandão, el-bs; Vanderlei Pereira, dm/perc / Jazzheads JH1242

One interesting fact about Vanderlei Pereira is that he is legally blind. A victim of inherited retinitis pigmentosa, he began his career as a classical percussionist but eventually had to give up that career as his vision deteriorated, going into jazz where he was not required to read scores. This explains his startlingly advanced technique, one of the finest I’ve ever heard from a jazz percussionist

You shouldn’t let the title of this album fool you. Vanderlei Pereira’s “Visions for Rhythm” aren’t different in any significant way from the visions of rhythm performed by most Latin-inspired bands since the 1940s. The principal differences here are two: first, that Pereira is, in my view, a first-class drummer, in fact much more versatile and interesting than the late Tito Puente, and two, that he has concocted here an updated version of Sergio Mendes’ Brazil ’66 band. Pereira calls this band Blindfold Test. Maybe he wanted his older listeners to think they were listening to ’60s Brazilian jazz.

By this I mean that Pereira has wedded a female singing voice to scat in unison with whatever instrument is playing the melody lead in the first and ensuing choruses (generally the flute) while keeping the rhythm section cooking almost constantly with an infectious beat. The difference between the two bands is that, as a primarily pop-oriented group, Brazil ’66 kept solos to a minimum, usually by Mendes himself on piano, whereas in this group Pereira allows plenty of solo room for his very talented band, of which, believe it or not, guitarist Paul Meyers is a particular standout.

I have complained loudly and long in my reviews about the preponderance of screaming, whiny electric rock guitar playing in jazz groups. The style is incongruous and it wears on my nerves. But Meyers is one of those rare guitarists nowadays who not only plays an acoustic instrument, but plays it with drive and zest as well as invention. Don’t get me wrong. Pianist Deanna Witkowski is very fine but not particularly individual, and although Jorge Continentino and Rodrigo Ursaia are lithe, inventive saxists who to a certain extent emulate Stan Getz in his Latin-based recordings, Meyers’ solos were, for me, one of the highlights of this album.

But this is one of those rare jazz CDs where the sum of the whole is greater than the parts. Indeed, I would say that if there is an innovation here it is in what I would call “total band integration.” For all the delight the solos bring, the overall impression one gets is of the swirling, whirling whole, almost as if, from the downbeat to the close of each number, the entire band gets up and dances. In addition, these are for the most part very catchy numbers; were there such a thing nowadays as AM pop radio, I could well imagine Chapéu Palheta [Straw Hat] hitting the top ten on the singles chart and staying there for a couple of weeks. Despite all the variations played by the jazz soloists, the catchy tune just keeps on going and going and stays in your mind after the record is over. Other tracks, such as O Que Ficou, are a little less pop-oriented and a bit more jazz-leaning, yet still catchy enough to be included on the “album version” (remember those?) of Chapéu Palheta—maybe even its flip side on the 45. Pereira plays superb backbeats on The Cry and the Smile.

This is the kind of album that I consider ideal for summertime listening, when the days are hot and draggy and you just want to lay back and do nothing, sipping an iced tea with lemon. Well recommended for what it is.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Dieterle & Forrester in the StatusSphere

Dieterle Status Sphere

STATUSSPHERE / MONK: Work. Crepuscule With Nellie (2 tks). Ruby My Dear. Let’s Call This. Pannonica. Ba-Lu-Bolivar Ba-lues Are. FORRESTER: Mock Time. Requiem for Aunt Honey. About Françoise. Don’t Ask Me Now. The Comeback / Vito Dieterle, t-sax; Joel Forrester, pno / Ride Symbol RID-CD-25

Young tenor saxist Vito Dieterle teams up here with veteran pianist Joel Forrester in a program of mostly Thelonious Monk tunes, with four Forrester originals interspersed among them. One interesting aspect of this album is that there is no rhythm section; another is that they actually improvise on Crepuscule With Nellie, a piece that Monk wrote to be performed straight with no improvisation.

Their decision to play so much Monk stems from the fact that Forrester feels that Dieterle sounds a lot like Charlie Rouse, who played tenor with Monk himself for 11 years (1959-69). I concur with his feeling, and in fact I’d love to hear Dieterle play with a pianist whose style is even closer to Monk than that of Forrester, who understands the chord sequences but whose playing is considerably smoother, less rhythmically angular than Monk’s own.

Which isn’t to say that Forrester is uninteresting; on the contrary, his solo on the opener, Work, shows that he does indeed understand Monk’s use of chromatics as well as anyone. It’s just that Monk’s angular, Stravinsky-like rhythms only come through occasionally in his playing, though listener less familiar with Monk himself will thoroughly enjoy what Forrester does here.

The duo places the two takes of Crepuscule With Nellie at opposite ends of this disc, the first coming on track 2 and the second as track 12, concluding the album. Nor do they rush through the piece, each take lasting almost seven and a half minutes, although the first minute and 50 seconds of each track presents the theme played straight. Forrester’s smoother piano style combines blues elements with a sort of George Shearing-like elegance, an unusual combination, yet it is Dieterle who really breaks through the written composition to come up with something both unique and exquisite. He is not a saxist who wastes notes in his solos; every note is there for a reason, and in the end I actually found his approach not too dissimilar from that of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who created whole choruses of integrated material out of thin air. From this standpoint, I found Forrester to be very good in a somewhat conventional way but Dieterle to be more continuously fascinating because of this uncanny ability of his.

The third track is Forrester’s Mock Time, a tune that sounds much more like a swing piece than something that Thelonious would have written—yet it’s attractive, and during Dieterle’s first solo Forrester plays a modified boogie beat which I found quite delightful. Later on, they trade fours in a nice chase chorus, with Dieterle listening to Forrester and building on what he has just played. Ruby My Dear goes at a nice, relaxed pace, with Dieterle limning the melody gracefully before the duo plunges into improvisations. This isn’t one of my favorite Monk tunes, however. Requiem for Aunt Honey is a slow piece, opening with an a cappella cadenza by the saxist. The melody is lyrical and attractive, and they play it very well. It ends in the middle of a phrase.

The duo also does a very nice job on Let’s Call This, with its angular melody and juxtaposed harmonies, with Dieterle nicely dovetailing his improvisation with Forrester’s piano. Unfortunately, About Françoise is a fairly dirge-like ballad. I was not terribly impressed.

Happily, they present a very nice, imaginative rendition of Pannonica, a tune dedicated to the one and only hip member of the Rothschild family, the “Jazz Baroness.” Though a slow piece, its unusual melodic and harmonic construction make it a wonderful tune to improvise on. Both players are at their best in this one. Dieterle tosses in some double-time phrases, and again constructs his solo logically while Forrester is a bit more ruminative. This is followed by another gem, Ba-Lu-Bolivar Ba-Lues Are, and Dieterle takes full advantage of this one to create one of his best solos on the record. Forrester also comes up with some nifty ideas as well.

Forrester’s original, Don’t Ask Me Now, is a clever play on the Monk tune title Ask Me Now, though the music is more boppish than the usual Monk piece. It has a nice structure, however, and both musicians really listen to each other when exchanging solos. The Comeback is also a nice tune with an attractive lead line, with Forrester playing a nice walking bass behind Dieterle’s solo and his own comping. It also has a nice feeling of swing that makes it an attractive closer.

Ah, but we’re not done quite yet. There is one more track, the alternate version of Crepuscule, and here the solos are rather different—in Dieterle’s case, I think even more imaginative than the first take, his playing more angular in many places.

All in all, then, a very interesting CD, recommended for both participants but particularly for Dieterle.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Lost Melody Plays New Songs for Old Souls

Lost Melody001

NEW SONGS FOR OLD SOULS / DAVIDIAN: Leaving Montserrat. Ready or Not. When First We Met. Before I Forget. If I Didn’t Need You. Sometime, Somehow. McMAHON: Sol. Won’t You Sing This Song for Me? OUSLEY: A Minor Waltz. A Sea of Voices / The Lost Melody: Joe Davidian, pno; Jamie Ousley, bs; Austin McMahon, dm / TIE Records 2000

“The Lost Melody” is not an album title; it is the name of a very good straightahead jazz trio that plays new songs that sound like old ones.

What do I mean by that? Even a cursory listen to this CD will tell you. The members of the trio, but mostly pianist Joe Davidian, all write pieces for them to play that sound very much like jazz and pop standards of a half-century ago. But this is not insipid music; on the contrary, they are as lively a group as you are likely to hear. It’s just that they forego the so-called “creativity” that many modern jazz groups follow, in which their tunes have no recognizable melodies. The Lost Melody’s tunes sound like a mixture of Horace Silver, Bud Powell, and any number of high quality songwriters who were active in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

A perfect example is the second track on this CD, Austin McMahon’s Sol, a nice, medium-tempo piece with a loping beat that resembles calypso. The tunes that The Lost Melody plays border on being earworms, the kind of songs that continue to go through your head long after you’ve heard them. Interestingly, for a song written by the group’s drummer, it is bassist Jamie Ousley who gets one of the most extended solos on this track, and a good one it is, too.

Davidian is a good pianist who controls himself and does not stray into outside jazz, yet his playing has sparkle and plenty of imagination. He is almost unique among modern pianists in that he can create interesting improvisations while keeping the melody going in one form or another, another hallmark of earlier jazz.

This may sound strange, but as I listened to this album I almost wished there were lyrics to some of these songs (e.g., Won’t You Sing This Song for Me?) and that they were being sung by Mel Tormé. There’s just something very Mel Tormé-ish about this entire enterprise, and the odd moment of displaced rhythm in Davidian’s solo here just seemed to me to cry out for Mel to jump in and scat along with the trio. I think he’d have loved this group.

The rhythm section of Ousley (who also solos on this track) and McMahon is tight without trying to be over-busy. This isn’t as easy to accomplish for players of this high a level as it seems. Yes, it’s easy for mediocre jazz musicians to not sound over-busy, because they don’t have great chops, but Ousley and McMahon are quite clearly masters of their instruments. They just know how to keep it under control in order to make the music work at its peak efficiency.

Three influences that seem to be missing from The Lost Melody’s style are those of the three most advanced and influential jazz pianists of that time, namely Monk, Brubeck and Evans. It might have been a bit more interesting had they dipped into their musical vocabulary just a bit, particularly in a tune like A Minor Waltz which I felt was rather less inventive or effective as the surrounding material. For me, this was the one real “lounge jazz” moment on this disc. Ready or Not impressed me more as a composition, and the subtle yet fascinating work that McMahon does in the background really livens up Davidian’s solo, which becomes more complex in its second and third choruses. Eventually, Davidian sits back and lets McMahon take over with an excellent and complex solo of his own. In the last chorus, McMahon suddenly plays back beats that go against the established rhythm—a nice touch.

When We First Met is a lyrical ballad, and here, in particular, I missed the influence of Bill Evans, even though the tempo picks up a bit (to a nice medium bounce) once the rhythm section entered. Before I Forget, recorded live, is an uptempo piece that, oddly enough, seems built on Charlie Chaplin’s famous tune Smile, though the middle section does not. Davidian has some fun in this one, inserting some descending chromatic chords against Ousley’s inventive and active bass. This is a live track, and the interaction between the members of the trio is at its peak here, particularly in the way they play with time.

Ousley’s original A Sea of Voices opens with an a cappella bass solo. Eventually Davidian enters behind him, sprinkling a few notes, followed by McMahon with some cymbal washes. At Davidian’s next entry, the trio finally coalesces, but alas the tune doesn’t really develop much beyond that except for Davidian’s fine double-time solo passage. The pianist also plays an excellent double-time chorus on If I Didn’t Need You. The album closes with Sometime, Somewhere, another ballad. I always feel that it’s a mistake, and a downer, to end a set with a ballad, where live or on a record, but that’s what they do here. Ousley contributes a very maudlin bowed bass solo.

Overall, then, a fine album with some very interesting moments.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Kociuban Plays Tansman & Bacewicz

comver - DUX1612

TANSMAN: Piano Concerto No. 1. BACEWICZ: Piano Concerto / Julia Kociuban, pno; Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orch.; Paweł Przytocki, cond / Dux 1612

The Polish CD label Dux puts out a lot of interesting CDs, but since they are fairly stingy in sharing their audio tracks, cover art & booklets with Naxos for reviewers to download I don’t get to review nearly as many of them as I would like. Happily, this one turned up on the media-only download site, thus I was able to enjoy and review it.

Both Tansman and Bacewicz were Polish-born composers, yet their music reflects very different aesthetics. Tansman, who spent much of his life in France, was more strongly influenced by the modern French school of Poulenc as well as the Russian expatriate Stravinsky, whereas Bacewicz, who spent her entire career composing in Poland, leaned more heavily on Shostakovich and Bartók. Neither concerto in this wonderful CD is much played or recorded, which is a shame.

In its very opening, the Tansman concerto sounds almost late Romantic, but the mood quickly shifts once the piano enters, with the harmonies becoming spikier but not too much so that it would alienate the lover of Prokofiev or Milhaud. As I’ve pointed out in numerous reviews of his music, Tansman was a superb craftsman who understood musical structure and development and was not shy about leaning on them heavily, even in his jazz-influenced piano pieces. Without knowing this work well—this was my first hearing of it—I can’t say how effective Paweł Przytocki’s conducting is, but it seemed to me that Kociuban, a 28-year-old pianist who was an entrant in the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, sounded very engaged to me. She has a wonderfully clear sound at the keyboard, and plays with a crisp touch and good emotional engagement without sacrificing good articulation. The lyrical second movement of this concerto sounded very Prokofiev-like to me, with a soaring lyric line over what I like to call Eastern European chords—a bit exotic, even somewhat Moorish, to Western ears. Here, too, one can appreciate the richness and subtlety of Tansman’s orchestration, particularly in the way he mixes winds and muted brass.

The third movement is very playful, in a Poulenc-like style, albeit with an undercurrent of slightly ominous brass (trombones and horns). High-lying, rapid passages in the pianist’s right hand are combined with flutes and clarinets as they try to overcome the darker world of the brass. The fourth movement, also very fast (“Allegro molto”), has moments of quietude to break up the forward pressure of the fast passages. For the most part, Tansman has the pianist ride above the orchestra, almost creating its own filigree of sound while the orchestra does its own thing.

The Bacewicz concerto, despite a fanfare-like opening, is an altogether more serious work, leaning heavily on staccato rhythms and sharply-etched fanfare-like figures in the orchestra. As with Tansman, Bacewicz seems to overlay the piano part on the orchestral, but the soloist has much meatier and less flashy music to play, and at times the orchestra picks up where the piano left off to continue the musical thought. At about 3:20 Bacewicz sets up repeated strokes of the tympani under the full orchestra, then both fall away as the pianist plays a slower, more meditative interlude with a few winds and soft, low strings before the tempo is ramped up again. But this first movement is full of mood and tempo shifts, even including a lyrical solo cello melody towards the end. The movement ends quite abruptly, followed by soft, edgy viola tremolos while low winds play an ominous theme. When the piano enters, it is to play a relatively slow theme that appears to ramble but in actuality is part of the evolving scheme.

But oh, that third movement! It explodes like a bomb and then takes off like a rocket, scattering fast, edgy notes to the winds, not only from the pianist but also from the flutes with help from the brass, strings and xylophone. Moments of respite come and go, but we keep returning to that dramatic-edgy feeling, eventually culminating in the pianist playing wild upward keyboard glissandi interspersed with edgy eighth-note figures from the piccolo while the rest of the orchestra boils madly around it. What a wild ride!

This is an excellent disc, the Bacewicz concerto being even better than the Tansman. I sincerely hope that young Kociuban continues to involve herself in projects like this. We desperately need more young pianists, violinists, cellists and conductors who involve themselves in more 20th and 21st-century music than we do now. Brava!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Rattle’s Awful “Die Walküre”

Rattle Walkure

WAGNER: Die Walküre / Eva-Maria Westbroek, sop (Sieglinde); Stuart Skelton, ten (Siegmund); Eric Halfvarson, bass (Hunding); James Rutherford, bar (Wotan); Iréne Theorin, sop (Brünnhilde); Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo (Fricka); Alwyn Mellor, sop (Gerhilde); Anna Gabler, sop (Ortlinde); Jennifer Johnston, mezzo (Waltraute); Claudia Huckle, alto (Schwertleite); Katherine Broderick, sop (Helmwige); Eva Vogel, mezzo (Siegrune); Anna Lapkovskaja, mezzo (Grimgerde); Simone Schröder, mezzo (Roβweiβe); Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Simon Rattle, cond / BR Klassik BRK 900177 (live: Munich, January 29-February 10, 2019)

After having been thrilled by Simon Rattle’s Das Rheingold, I was delighted to see that Die Walküre was being released next month, and so sampled it for review.

Well, let’s go over the few positives. Elisabeth Kulman, that excellent mezzo, is back as Fricka and sings as well as ever. Tenor Stuart Skelton, who usually sounds hard, wooden and strained in most of the performances I’ve heard by him, actually sounds wonderful on this set as Siegmund, singing not only with a nice lyric line but interpreting his role quite sensitively.

That’s about it.

Michael Volle, sadly, does not return as Wotan. Instead we get an ugly-voiced, wobbly baritone thing called James Rutherford. Three notes into his entrance music and I wanted to throw a rock at his head. We also get saddled with not one but two wobbly, unsteady sopranos, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde, and if anything Theorin is worse than Westbroek because her timbre is ugly in addition to having a wobble. Eric Halfvarson, the one really poor singer on the Rheingold (Fafner), returns here to ruin Hunding’s music, and neither he nor his wobble have aged well.

The Valkyries are, collectively, a fluttery-sounding bunch whose singing resembles one of those British Ladies’ Choral Societies of old women who get together to sing Handel choruses and the like. Moreover, our lead Valkyrie, Alwyn Mellor, messes up the beat in her opening lines. This is unforgivable from a major conductor like Rattle, and should have been corrected forthwith.

But why bother when the cast is, with only two exceptions, uniformly awful? OK, so he couldn’t get Volle to return as Wotan. Do you mean to tell me that a conductor of Rattle’s stature couldn’t find a first-rate Wotan? Anne Scwhanewilms could have sung Sieglinde, or perhaps even Brünnhilde. She has a lovely, steady voice. I would have plugged Kevin Short in as Hunding. If you use Schwanewilms as Brünnhilde, use Anna Netrebko or Ailyn Perez as Sieglinde. Bingo, you’ve just improved your cast with first-rate singers.

I have a sinking feeling that we’re going to see Halfvarson return as Fafner and Theorin as Brünnhilde in Siegfried, and equally terrible cast choices for Götterdämmerung, so I will stop my listening to the Rattle Ring and close the curtain on this sad episode. And Alan Blyth thought that the Westminster Gold Ring was beneath him to review?

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Samaltanos Plays Skalkottas

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AwardSKALKOTTAS: Suite (violin-piano version arr. by Skalkottas).1 On the Beach.2 The Music.2 Once Upon a Time.2 The Return of Odysseus (arr. for two pianos by Skalkottas).3 12 Greek Dances.4 Sifneikos I.5 Ipirotikos I5 / Nikolaos Samaltanos, pno (except last 2 tracks); 1Nina Pissareva Zymbalist, vln; 2Angelica Cathariou, mezzo; 3Christophe Sirodeau, 5Tota Economos, pno; 4Little Symphony Orch. of San Francisco, cond. Gregory Millar / Melism MLSCD025

It’s actually rather amazing that a composer I had never heard of before I reviewed his Piano Concerto No. 3 in December 2019 has suddenly had a spate of recordings of his music suddenly gush forth in recent months. This latest incarnation is particularly interesting since it is comprised entirely of premiere recordings, not only of the violin-piano version of the Suite for Violin and Orchestra—which version includes the surviving violin-only part of the missing fifth movement—and the three songs, but also a rare 1957 stereo recording of his most popular work, the 12 Greek Dances, and the first-ever recording of any of his works, a 1949 aircheck of two pieces by Greek pianist Tota Economos from 1949, when the composer was still alive (1949 was the year of his untimely death).

The Suite of 1929 is up first, and a great modern piece it is. Violinist Zymbalist and pianist Samaltanos really dig into it and do a great job with it, but I wasn’t terribly happy about the over-reverberation on the instruments (as my regular readers know, one of the banes of my existence as a reviewer). The second movement, though using atonal harmony and rootless chords, is extremely lyrical, particularly in the violin part; had Skalkottas used more conventional harmony with some tonal resolution in the accompaniment, it might be a piece that would be played around the world—but we all know how committed most classical performances are to playing the SOS (Same Old Stuff) over and over and over again, so who knows. Since the piano part for the last movement has been lost, Zymbalist plays this as a violin solo, and here the atonal harmonies are indeed heard even in this solo part.

The first of the three songs from 1938-1946 is more tonal, being based more on popular and folk song models. Mezzo-soprano Angelica Cathariou has a nice tone but is too nasal in her singing, and by pushing the tone she sometimes creates an unpleasant effect. The second of these songs, The Music, sounded more modern but in the style of Kurt Weill rather than Schoenberg. Skalkottas was not all in on serial music and in fact composed in different styles to meet different musical needs. The third song is closer in feeling to Bartók.

Next up is the 2-piano reduction (made by the composer) of his overture The Return of Odysseus for large orchestra. This recording was made as far back as 26 years ago, in December 1994, although this is its first release. The music rambles softly through the opening section, atonal yet somehow pleasant to listen to, and in this recording the excess reverb is not present. The “overture” is unusual in that it divides itself into five sections, marked “Molto adagio,” “Allegro molto vivace,” “[Fuga]” (in brackets because it is not Skalkottas’ description), “[Allegro molto vivace]” and “Presto – Prestissimo.” Having never heard the orchestral version, I can only imagine what it would sound like. Surely, the fast-paced, almost hectic-sounding second section would have been played by strings and possibly woodwinds, but even in this reduction it makes a tremendous effect. Written in 1944-45, a time when Skalkottas was generally writing more audience-friendly music, it is considerably harsher in both melody and harmony than, for instance, his 12 Greek Dances which follow it. Another strange feature of this “overture” is its length; it lasts over 23 minutes, nearly the length of a symphony. The “Fuga” is fast, furious and very atonal. Despite the lack of reverberance, it seemed to me that the pianos were not as clearly recorded in their upper ranges; a bit of treble brightening would have been welcome.

Gregory MillarFollowing this is the first recording of the 12 Greek Dances, conducted by Gregory Millar (née Grigorios Manoussos). Millar was an interesting character. An operatic tenor and a violinist, Millar (1925-2002) was born in Saskatchewan, Alberta. After serving a stint in the Canadian army during World War II, he went back to college and organized the University of British Columbia’s first symphony orchestra. By his own admission, “I didn’t know anything about [conducting], I just got up and conducted.” He drew the attention of young Leonard Bernstein, however, who urged him to follow that line of the music business. Millar was assistant conductor at St. Louis for three seasons, then moved to the West Coast of the U.S. where he led opera performances and formed the San Francisco Little Symphony. In 1960 he moved to New York where he became one of Bernstein’s assistant conductors, making his 12 Greek Dances Fantasy LPdebut with a performance of the Schumann Third Symphony in the middle of a concert when Bernstein took ill. In 1961 he became music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony, a post he held for seven years (he was succeeded by Pierre Hetu in the fall of 1968). Judging from this one recording, he was indeed an excellent conductor. This is the finest performance of the 12 Greek Dances I’ve ever heard; the music has snap and crackle whereas other versions are soft and mushy. This recording was issued on LP by Fantasy Records in 1967, then by the Greek Collectors Society in 1967. This is the first release of the original stereo tapes. The sound is a little thin and shrill up top, however; a little judicious audio editing could have made it a bit less abrasive.

EconomosWe end our survey with the rarest of all Skalkottas recordings, his Sifneikos I and Ipirotikas I played by pianist Tota Economos, highly admired by the composer, from a French radio broadcast in 1949. Like Millar, Economos plays the composer’s music with more muscle and sparkle than many of today’s performers, and it’s wonderful to hear these performances. The sound is fairly clear and natural, if with rather more surface noise than I like.

This is clearly one of the most interesting and valuable of all the recent releases of Skalkottas’ music, one of this year’s best classical releases to date.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Zuill Bailey Plays Walton & Strauss

cover - STNS30156

WALTON: Cello Concerto. STRAUSS: Don Quixote* / Zuill Bailey, cel; *Roberto Diaz, vla; North Carolina Symphony Orch.; Grant Llewellyn, cond / Steinway & Sons STNS30156

This latest CD from Zuill Bailey combines one 20th-century work not often performed with a classic tone poem for cello, viola and orchestra from the late 19th century. I give Bailey a lot of credit for moving at least a little outside of his “comfort zone” to play and record the Walton Cello Concerto, which is clearly one of the composer’s finest works. Written in 1956 to a commission by Gregor Piatagorsky, it was premiered by him in Boston on January 25, 1957. The harmonic language used here is much more sophisticated than that of most of Walton’s works from the 1930s and ‘40s, combining some of the harmonic style of Prokofiev and Stravinsky (particularly in his use of the woodwinds). More interestingly, the solo cello part seems to be a continuously moving and developing line of music, and in the first movement, at least, it is much more lyrical and less flashy than most of the familiar cello concertos.

Since lyrical music is one of Bailey’s strengths, this is right up his alley, and I’m happy to report that conductor Grant Llewellyn is with him every step of the way. The second movement is flashier but clearly not “just” a showpiece for the soloist; once again, the music moves and develops in quite interesting and complex ways. Bailey, like Piatagorsky, is a cellist whose forte is a bright, compact tone rather than the lush sounds one associates with Casals, Rostropovich or Colin Carr, thus this music almost sounds as if it were tailored for him. He retains a fullness of tone in the upper range but also brings that compact sound down into the low range as well, creating what one might term a uniform or continuous sound profile. This allows him to project the music emotionally, which he does, without drawing attention to his tone in either range. In short, he acts as a “clear channel” for Walton’s intentions without forcing his own personality on the music, yet, as I say, he puts plenty of feeling into it.

Bailey also uses vibrato in the manner of true 18th-century virtuosi, forsaking it for fast passages while displaying a quick, light vibrato on sustained notes. This exact same approach, then, would serve him well in the Haydn Cello Concerti. The Walton concerto ends with a fairly long theme and variations (13:26), and it is here, oddly enough, that the composer called for some of the more attention-grabbing effects from the soloist, including purposely rough bowing, a bit of portamento and spiccato, particularly in the one variation (which begins around the 5:00 mark) which sounds like a cadenza before moving into an edgy, fast-paced orchestral passage that has a hint of Latin rhythm to it. In the last, slow variation, Bailey finally allows himself to lay into his instrument’s low range to bring out more of its beauty of tone.

Llewellyn’s conducting was so good in the Walton concerto that I was really looking forward to the performance of Don Quixote, a piece that requires far more from the orchestra and conductor than mere accompaniment. This piece, often cited as Strauss’ masterpiece, is actually a large concerto grosso for the two instruments and orchestra built in the structure of a tone poem. The most successful recordings are those which had the best soloist-conductor relationship, among them the first complete recording by Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi with Strauss himself conducting, Emanuel Feuermann with Toscanini, Frank Miller with Toscanini (one of the warmest and most beautiful of the Maestro’s later recordings) and Paul Tortelier with Rudolf Kempe. Llewellyn takes a light, relaxed, almost pastoral approach to the music (much like Toscanini in 1953), which I always felt worked better than his faster, edgier approach in 1938 because, after all, this is a portrait of an old, deluded man living in his own imaginary world. But perhaps Llewellyn is a bit too relaxed in the opening section; during the oboe solo, the music loses its forward momentum and just sort of hangs in the air, though the conductor does pick things up again once the tempo increases. Once the soloists enter—Bailey on cello as Quixote and Roberto Diaz on viola as Sancho Panza—the atmosphere of the music subtly changes, which in turn leads to a drastic change as the orchestra depicts the Don’s “heroic deeds.” At this point, Llewellyn fully enters the spirit of the score, becoming more and more engaged as the narrative continues, and our two soloists also give more of themselves. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the conductor and orchestra (but not the soloists) sort of went in and out of musical focus. It’s one thing to conduct a certain passage slowly for effect—both Kempe and late Toscanini did this—and quite another to let the rhythm slacken and threaten to collapse. Unfortunately, Llewellyn is not alone in doing this sort of thing. It’s a new style of conducting that permeates too much of the musical landscape, and I for one am not fond of it.

Thus, in the end, I had a rather less favorable impression of the Strauss performance than that of the Walton. It’s clearly not a really bad reading, but it’s not very good either. As I said above, Bailey and Diaz are fine throughout, the cellist moreso than the violist, but since their appearances in this score are intermittent it’s impossible for them to be the ones to sustain a continuous pulse in this music. For me, it was like watching a movie while the projector kept going in and out of focus.

These performances are both credited on the back cover as live performances, but since I was not provided a booklet to download I have no idea what the dates are. Recommended for the Walton Concerto, however.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Reassessing Rattle’s “Rheingold”

Rattle Rheingold cover

WAGNER: Das Rheingold / Mirella Hagen, soprano (Woglinde); Stefani Irányi, mezzo (Wellgunde); Eva Vogel, alto (Flosshilde); Tomasz Konieczny, bass-baritone (Alberich); Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo (Fricka); Annette Dasch, soprano (Freia); Michael Volle, baritone (Wotan); Herwig Pecoraro, tenor (Mime); Peter Rose, bass (Fasolt); Eric Halfvarson, bass (Fafner); Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Loge); Christian Van Horn, bass-baritone (Donner); Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Froh); Janina Baechle, mezzo (Erda); Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Simon Rattle, cond / BR Klassik 900133 (live: Munich, April 24-25, 2015)

Being somewhat disappointed by the stereo Rheingold I had—Karl Böhm’s conducting was fine, as were the Loge of Wolfgang Windgassen, the Alberich and Mime of Neidlinger and Wohlfahrt, and the two giants (Talvela and Böhme), but Theo Adam was in very wobbly voice as Wotan and Vera Soukupová had a rather squally voice as Erda—I began searching around for a stereo/digital alternative to my beloved mono recordings of Rheingold. I rather liked Daniel Barenboim’s 1991 recording on Warner Classics/Teldec, but although his exciting moments are terrific, he lets the music sag pretty badly in the slow and semi-slow portions, which eventually drove me away from it.

Thus when I saw this recording pop up on the Naxos Music Library, I started listening—and couldn’t stop. Here was an excellent stereo Rheingold with generally excellent conducting and good singing from top to bottom. Granted, Janina Baechle’s Erda isn’t much of an improvement on Soukupová, but Michael Volle’s Wotan has it all over Theo Adam in that 1966 performance in terms of firmness of voice, and his interpretation of the role is fascinating. Elisabeth Kulman is a better Fricka than Annalies Burmeister, and Annette Dasch (Freia) has a much more attractive voice than Anja Silja. Tenor Burkhard Ulrich, generally known for lighter Wagner roles like the Steersman in Flying Dutchman, does not have as rich a voice as Windgassen, but he creates a more vivid character. The only really wobbly singer in this cast is Eric Halfvarson as Fafner—he and the bass singing Fasolt should have switched places—and although that annoys me, Fafner doesn’t get as much to sing as Alberich or Wotan. (As for Erda, the very best singer in this role on a modern recording is the little-known Silke Marchfeld with conductor Roberto Paternostro on Ars Produktion. I “borrowed” her “Weiche, Wotan, weiche” for this recording.)

Truth be told, despite the purely digital sound, this Rheingold shows only a slight improvement in sonics over the 1966 Böhm recording, which had terrific sound for its time, though Rattle is much better in the orchestral finale, where you can really hear the horns. More importantly, Rattle, like Böhm, keeps things moving along at a good pace—his two halves of the opera are only a couple of minutes longer than Böhm’s. Although the two live performances from which this recording was drawn were given in Munich and not in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, BR Klassik’s engineers captured a real “live” feeling with an ambience similar to that oft Bayreuth, but although they captured the voices clearly, for some strange reason they miked the orchestra at a bit of a distance, which makes some of the softest passages nearly inaudible (e.g., the soft string tremolos in “Weiche, Wotan”).

Despite this nitpicking on the orchestral sound, this adds up to a very satisfying listening experience. So why didn’t I review this recording when it came out? Easy answer. At that time, I was writing for a somewhat major classical CD review magazine, and the editor assigned different recordings to different writers, one or two of which had dibs on any Ring cycle operas. So I was never offered it to review, and in time I completely forgot about it.

I only give it five fish instead of six, however, because of Baechle’s somewhat infirm Erda. Had Rattle held out for Silke Marchfeld in this role, it would easily rate six fish.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Alvin Schwaar & Company Are “Travellin’ Light”

Travellin' Light

G. & I. GERSHWIN: Someone to Watch Over Me. HANCOCK: I Have a Dream. ELLINGTON: Heaven. Prelude to a Kiss. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are. CHASE-ROBIN-WHITING: My Ideal. EVANS: Very Early. COLTRANE: Big Nick / Travellin’ Light: Alvin Schwaar, pno; Bänz Oester, bs; Noé Franklé, dm / Leo Records CD LR 875

Those readers familiar with the type of music usually released on Leo Records will probably have question marks going through their heads after seeing the above header. Not ONE original piece by a group member or the whole group? An ENTIRE program of pop music classics and pieces by earlier, established jazz musicians? Yes, indeed.

The answer is that “Travellin’ Light” (spelled with two Ls…after all this is a British label!) so completely deconstructs these pieces that they range from barely recognizable to, as John Cleese used to say, “something completely different.” A perfect example is the opener, George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me. To begin with, the tempo has been brought way down, almost to a crawl. Secondly, the melody is played in such a way that the notes are spaced out differently from the way a normal jazz pianist would play them. And thirdly, within that spacing-out of the melody, the rhythm is shifted around so that the tune is stretched out over more measures than would normally be the case. It’s almost in the realm of “ambient jazz,” but not quite, because there is quite a bit going on in terms of rhythmic displacement throughout this performance. The trio was wise to open with a familiar song that everyone knows, because it gives the listener a guidepost by which to judge their approach to music.

I admit to not knowing Herbie Hancock’s I Have a Dream, Bill Evans’ Very Early or Coltrane’s Big Nick, so I can’t comment on how these performances compare to the originals, but of course I know all the other pieces played here. I can say, however, that I Have a Dream opens with sparse bass notes before the piano enters, lightly playing a few licks, before entering into the tune proper. I would assume that the same tricks with rhythm and time are played in this selection as well. One difference in this track is that both the tempo and volume increase to a grand climax before falling away, back to quietude.

Heaven is an Ellington piece that is almost never played by jazz groups, due to its being written for his Second Sacred Concert with a simple melodic line that doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Once again, Travellin’ Light slows it down, but since it was a slow piece to begin with the difference here is not as marked as in the opening track. Much of this performance shows off drummer Noé Franklé’s quiet virtuosity and his ability to create numerous brush effects while bassist Bänz Oester picks his way through the upper reaches of his bass. Eventually Franklé becomes somewhat more aggressive on the drums, upping the temperature level as pianist Schwaar picks his way through variants on the original theme.

Yet none of this prepared me for their extraordinary treatment of All the Things You Are, probably the most famous song written by Oscar Hammerstein II before he teamed up with Richard Rodgers (well, next to Ol’ Man River, anyway). In their fast-paced, almost chaotic treatment of it, the original tune is never stated fully until the middle of the performance (about 5:14 in), but rather in short, percussive jabs at the keyboard and with the notes very much out of order and even transposed to atonal realms. This is truly one of the most astounding transformations of an established tune I’ve ever heard in my life.

My Ideal opens with a surprisingly strong atonal, upper-register chord on the piano, followed by the bass moaning and groaning against sporadic percussion accents. This, too, is a fairly radical rewriting of the original tune, and again unrecognizable in the opening minutes. Indeed, the bass’ improvisations seem to be the driving force of this performance, with the pianist assuming the role of a background player.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not really familiar with Bill Evans’ Very Early, but can attest that Schwaar plays his instrument here very much in the Evans manner, and bassist Oester sounds quite a bit like an Evans bassist. Franklé sits the opening out, not coming in until after two minutes have gone by, and then he is very busy, upping both the tempo and the pace, forcing Schwaar and Oester into rapid double-time figures that become increasingly hectic and even percussive at times. By the four-minute mark, the band is really swinging.

Coltrane’s Big Nick is next, and here the trio opens it as a late-bop swinger, with a regular 4 rhythm and plenty of energy. Before we reach the two-minute mark, however, the drums are already breaking up the time in unusual ways as well as spurring the piano and bass into ever more frantic figures. There’s also an extraordinary bass solo in this one, just before the close.

The disc ends with another slow ballad treatment of a pop classic, in this case Ellington’s more famous Prelude to a Kiss. Here, the melody is played slowly but in a fairly straightforward fashion, with no really radical beat, note or pitch displacements.

Overall, this is a really fascinating recording that takes all of your powers of concentration to appreciate, but the results are well worth the effort.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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