Introducing Quartet Red

Quartet Red

KUDRYAVSTEV-COSTA-SANDOMIRSKY-TALALAY: Outta Town. Rush Hour Beauty. Chasing Tail. Where is the Station? Hotel Room Disasters. When Bars Are Closing. Dead Partners. Cactus. Farewell Cocktail / Quartet Red: Fred Costa, t-sax/voc; Gregory Sandomirsky, pno/voc; Vladimir Kudryavstev, bs; Piotr Talalay, dm / Leo Records CD LR 882

Three of the members of this quartet are core members of the best-known Russian free jazz group, Goat’s Notes, who have several releases on Leo Records. The fourth member of this new partnership, French saxophonist Fred Costa, joined Kudryavstev and Sandomorsky on a tour of France in 2015 and now joins them on this new CD.

The group bursts open this disc with Outta Town, a piece that starts with saxist Fred Costa grunting out some weird high notes while the rhythm section settles into a sort of modified shuffle rhythm. I was so delighted to hear a regular pulse for once that I was immediately caught up in the spirit of this piece. Development is somewhat minimal but the quartet catches a nice groove and hangs on to it; later in the piece, Costa indulges in some really strange guttural sounds, but mainly plays with a firm, rich tone, and actually stays somewhat tonal in a limited note range. This almost sounds like the kind of piece you’d hear in your local jazz club at the end of the third set, when the musicians are a little smashed and want to experiment. In the latter hald of the piece, Costa retreats to playing soft held notes with occasional slap-tongued notes while pianist Sandomirsky slows things down. One of them says something softly and incoherently for the finish.

Rush Hour Beauty, while not as regularly rhythmic as the opener, finds its own sort of pulse. Once again, one of the “vocalists” grunts out an incoherent spoken riff, probably more for effect than to be understood. This hoarse spoken vocal is interspersed with licks by Costa as the rhythm cooks behind them, increasing the pulse at 1:55 and leading into a nice drum solo by Talalay. There’s a sort of Tom Waits vibe in the grunted vocal except for the incomprehensible lyrics. Costa goes crazy with a quadruple-time series of fast phrases as the rhythm suddenly ramps up to join him. Eventually, the band finds the original rhythm as Costa returns for the ride-out.

Chasing Tail is your obligatory chaotic mad scramble to flail out as many notes as you can in all directions and see what sticks to the wall (not a lot). The bowed bass solo in the middle, though brief, establishes some stasis to the chaos before it returns. Where is the Station? opens with Sandomirsky playing the inside strings of his piano against the drums before we get another pointless, whispered, Tom Waits-type spoken vocal, of which “Where is the station?” were the only words I could make out. Who knows? Maybe this guy was stoned and really couldn’t find the station! This one does feature a nice pizzicato bass solo as well as some neat backwards-shuffle drumming behind the single-note piano part. At about 5:44 the tempo shifts to 3/4 time as we move into the finale.

Hotel Room Disasters is another free-form piece, but this one actually builds very well and goes someplace, led by the tenor sax while the bass drones down below and the drums play out-of-tempo beats behind them. The piano sits this one out. When Bars are Closing again has a regular beat in 4, an attractive minor-key melodic line, and more hoarsely grunted words by one of our “vocalists.” Although I liked much of the quartet’s music, I could have lived without the bad grunted vocal lines. They add nothing to the music and in fact detract a great deal from it. Sandomirsky, however, plays very well on this one, producing a nice coherent solo, and Costa is also very fine.

Dead Partners is a rather eerie, grim-sounding piece, but despite some background speaking it holds one’s attention and develops rather well. More gibberish, this time in a clearer, non-Tom-Waits kind of voice, in double time. Cactus begins with some hoarse whispering with no instrumental accompaniment, with the bass and a second voice coming in to add rhythmic cross-currents while the drums work away behind them. When the sax enters at 3:44, it is quite creative, playing some very interesting lines that fit into the general mood and framework of the piece. The sax becomes busier and more agitated as the piece grows in excitement, building to a furious climax before dropping out and letting the piano calm things down (with more muttering.)

We end with Farewell Cocktail, a neat little tune (yes, a real tune!) in a slow 4, with a regular beat and a nice coochy feel.

Although I liked most of the music on this set, I was less than enamored of the hoarse talking throughout. It added absolutely nothing to the overall effect of the music and in fact detracted one’s attention from the real business going on behind it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Nucleons Are Hunting Waves

Baumann - Nucleons

HUNTING WAVES / BAUMANN-ROTZIER-KÜNZI: Heisenberg’s Accident. Hunting Quarks. Spinning. Seven Lives. Chain of Fools. Subatomic Whisperings / Nucleons: Franziska Baumann, voc; Sebastian Rotzier, bs; Emanuel Künzi, dm / Leo Records CD LR 876

This very strange CD contains some very strange music, even by Leo Records’ standards. Nucleons is a Lucerne, Switzerland-based trio in which the lead instrument is neither a reed nor a brass player, but a singer, and to say that Franziska Baumann uses her voice instrumentally is an understatement. Often, I wondered what high reed instrument was playing with the bass and drums, only to realize that it was Baumann’s voice.

But the strangeness doesn’t stop there. Much of the music is abstract to the point of parsing notes, intervals and rhythm. Some of the music emerges almost like modern classical compositions, which led me to wonder how much background and experience these three musicians have had with that genre of music.

In the first piece, Heisenberg’s Accident, Baumann sings words, or at least syllables, in what sounds like a few different languages (though, since I don’t know any of them, I can’t tell if they’re really coherent phrases or just gibberish). This is largely a duet between her voice and Sebastian Rotzier’s bass, with drummer Emanuel Künzi sort of flailing away on his own behind them. Baumann eventually devolves from words to syllables and grunts in rhythm, producing a truly strange effect as if she were a second percussionist. This is really wild music! And, despite the free-form of the improvisations, it has direction and development within each piece. Further on, Baumann sings a repeated series of high Es in a sort of staccato flutter than resembles the very old-style “Baroque trill” of classical music.

Hunting Quarks, the longest piece on the disc at 15:23, opens with some strange percussion sounds that resemble someone sawing wood (or maybe a petal pipe with a hacksaw), which then turns into a sort of metallic whine (possibly the bass playing very high up on the edge of the strings with the bow). This continues for some time, with the bass’ edgy high tremolos becoming louder and more insistent, until we finally hear Baumann singing high flutters with the voice around the 3:56 mark—but she doesn’t stay in the mix, but rather comes and goes. This is where she often sounds like an instrument the most. By the 5:12 mark, Künzi’s drumming becomes more insistent but also more set in a regular rhythmic pattern, and when Baumann returns it is to sing high sustained notes and, later, flutters over several tones, almost like a trill in thirds, followed by percussive single notes created by her moving her lips in rapid succession. I’ve not heard anything like this in jazz; it sounds more like something that György Ligeti might have written. And believe it or not, the vocalizations become even weirder as the piece goes on, including what sounds like a flute but is probably Baumann singing in a high falsetto register. Later still, the bass answers her with low drones as the drums just keep chugging away. But I swear I hear a flute in here, yet none is credited on the album. Curiouser and curiouser!

Spinning is more of the same, but on Seven Lives we hear mostly an atonal bass solo by Sebastian Rotzier with a little high-note holding by Baumann and some light percussion in the background. In Chain of Fools, Baumann speaks her lines, most of which sound like French (I did make out “pourquoi”), while the percussion stays busy and the bass drops out. Subatomic Whisperings opens with Baumann making strange guttural sounds in the back of her throat while the bass moans and the percussion plays around her. Baumann eventually moves on to singing “Hey-a-hey-i-o”s, in an attractive melodic pattern, as the music settles down and becomes more lyrical.

A relatively brief but strange musical journey! You’ve got to hear this one to believe it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gratkowski & Nabatov Present “Dance Hall Stories”

Dance Hall Stories

DANCE HALL STORIES / NABATOV-GRATKOWSKI-MAHNIG: Hopeful Glances. Wrong Move Reflected. It’s All in the Hips.* Slinky. Gradual Enticement.* Sitting One Out. Cautious Invitation.* Pocket Found* / Frank Gratkowski, a-sax/cl/bs-cl/fl; Simon Nabatov, pno; *Dominik Mahnig, dm / Leo Records CD LR 880

The title and cover art of this album are deceiving, suggesting music for dancing and possibly even in the vein of swing when it is nothing of the sort. As the liner notes suggest—and I do not agree with this—“A dance hall after all is, among other things, an arena for attraction, rejection and every nuance of human interaction in-between. New encounters on the dance floor play out with every ramification imaginable. From shy to boastful, from resigned to hopeful, from insecure to assertive and jubilant – the entire gamut of emotions is on display. Following these outlines, the pieces take on varied forms – some have rather linear development, some find an abrupt ending, some sustain almost stasis character, others quiet down after a storm of emotions.”

The reason I disagree with this is that, in the two times I went to a “dance hall” as a teen, all I experienced was rejection—or, perhaps more accurately, being ignored. The few times I conjured up the nerve to go up and talk to someone, I was simply ignored. No jubilation, no acceptance, nothing. I was much happier going to the Meadowbrook to see Duke Ellington’s band play in person, one of the great moments in my life. I had no need to try to find a dance partner. I could simply bask in the wonderful sounds that emanated from the bandstand.

Thus the reader will perhaps understand my perspective in reviewing this CD. I liked a great deal of the music herein, but found its connection with “every nuance of human interaction” more than a bit of a stretch. Hopeful Glances is a musical story told in short gestures: sad little notes played on both alto sax and piano, more like “pathetic gestures.” It is a sad little atonal piece, yet one that holds your attention due to its feeling of complete isolation. The protagonist may as well be standing in an empty room imagining what he or she might do if in a dance hall, but without dance music surrounding it, it’s just a lonely piece. The tempo picks up around the 2:40 mark but the feeling of isolation does not. Gratkowski moves into the upper register of his instrument, playing occasional notes that sound like cries; then the music stops at about 4:00, only to restart with a plaintive line that coalesces into a melody of sorts while Nabatov plays opposing single-note figures in the bass. The music thus develops in this vein. Our protagonist seems to be hopefully glancing all over the room at nearly everybody in it, receiving no response from any of them. At 6:09 the tempo increases again, becoming jumpy and jittery; these are no longer hopeful, but neurotic, glances. Fear and panic set in as the music proceeds to its conclusion, the alto sax squealing and screaming in protest.

Wrong Move Reflected is a fast-paced piece in which the alto sax plays buzzes through the mouthpiece and splatters fast high-note lines into the ether as the piano creates its own web of jittery fourths in a variety of atonal pitches. Gratkowski also switches to the bass clarinet at one point to burp out some staccato S.O.S. notes in its lower range. Some sort of grating percussion also emerges near the end (though this is not a track on which percussionist Dominik Mahnig is credited as playing on) as the piece winds down, ending with a whimper.

Mahnig joins the duo on It’s All in the Hips. According to the notes, this piece is supposed to suggest “dance music,” but only a cyberborg with a short circuit could dance to this. The rhythms are purposely played stiffly as the music lurches forward rather than moving in any sort of recognizable rhythm. Mahnig sticks mostly to the snare drum in this one, with occasional cymbals and sticks playing on the drum rim, as pianist and alto saxist eventually pull the tempo down to a slower pace before Nabatov ramps things up again. A dead stop around the four-minute mark leads into a somewhat more melodic approach, but it becomes tangled up in its own knots. Near the very end we finally hear something that simulates a dance rhythm, but very briefly. The music ends in the midst of a phrase.

On Slinky, Grabatov switches to flute, producing more rhythmic atonal lines as Nabatov joins in. One problem that I had with this music was not that each piece wasn’t interesting in itself, but that too much of the music is of the same order. There are only so many mid-range atonal flitters I can absorb or listen to with pleasure. Without a framework for what they are doing, the internal mechanics of the music sound like so much corrupted clockwork, so to speak. Had they given some contrasting music to set up the atonal improvisation, it might have worked better. In this respect, I place much of the onus on pianist Nabatov. He is simply not as adept at creating a framework for the improvisation as Matthew Shipp is in his recordings with Ivo Perelman. This does not mean that Nabatov is not an interesting improviser, only that what he plays should show a bit more structure and lead Gratkowski. With both soloists pretty much meandering all of the time, there are indeed some very interesting and lucid moments, but moments only. It’s like reading the central section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land without having the opening and closing sections as a frame of reference. I hope the reader understands what I mean. It’s almost as if these were incomplete performances. What is here is indeed intermittently brilliant, but no consistently so and, to my ears, not always coherent. Now, if incoherence doesn’t bother you, you’ll enjoy this recording more than I did, but to a large extent I kept waiting for something to come along that would put it in context.

Insofar as the other pieces on this disc are concerned, I actually liked the very frenetic Gradual Enticement (none of which sounded to me either gradual or enticing) for what it was: a complete explosion of psychotic fears in music. In and of itself, it was a very good piece. Following this, I also liked the quiet opening of Sitting One Out, in which electronics and nature sounds seemed to be spliced into the recording. Here, the musicians did give some frame of reference to the music by playing long-held alto notes along with piano sprinkles that developed into a very atmospheric and lyrical exposition in which the fewer, more spaced-out notes bound the music together more coherently. At about 3:30, Nabatov plays some very low-range held notes and chords that resembled the 1970s music of Leif Segerstam. Cautious Invitation reverts to the trio flittering about, with Nabatov flittering about in low-range single notes while Gratkowski plays a slap-tongue bass clarinet. It’s very interesting for a couple of minutes but, again, lacks a feeling of coherence.

The final track, Pocket Found, was to my ears the best piece of all, not just because the musicians finally found a somewhat regular pulse to play to but because within that steadier pulse the free-form ideas of Gratkowski and Nabatov jelled perfectly. There is not only something interesting going on, but it has a direction and a flow from point A to point B.

I liked a lot of what they were doing here, but not all of it. Nonetheless, this is clearly an album worth hearing for the more extraordinary moments.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Best Integral “Ring” Cycle I’ve Heard

Ring

WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Hannelore Hammes [Rheingold], Christa Lehnert [Götterdämmerung], soprano (Woglinde); Ingrid Liljeberg [Rheingold], Ilse Gramtzki [Götterdämmerung]. soprano (Wellgunde); Ilse Gramatzki [Rheingold], Brigitte Fassbaender [Götterdämmerung], mezzo (Floβhilde); Zoltán Kélémen, bass-baritone (Alberich); Theo Adam, bass-baritone (Wotan/Wanderer); Janis Martin, mezzo (Fricka); Leonore Kirschstein, soprano (Freia/Gutrune); Herbert Schachtchneider, tenor (Loge); Hermann Winkler, tenor (Froh); Erwin Wohlfahrt, tenor (Mime); Gerd Nienstedt, bass (Fasolt/Hunding/Hagen); Karl Ridderbusch, bass (Fafner); Thomas Tipton, bass-baritone (Donner/Gunther); Oralia Dominguez, mezzo (Erda); Eberhard Katz, tenor (Siegmund); Hildegard Hillebrecht, soprano (Sieglinde); Nadéžda Kniplová, soprano (Brünnhilde); Lieselotte Rebmann, soprano (Gerhilde); Elisabeth Schwarzenberg, soprano (Ortlinde/3rd Norn); Irene Dalis, mezzo (Waltraute); Aili Purtonen, alto (Schwertleite); Danica Mastilovic, soprano (Helmwige); Jane Murray Dillard, mezzo (Siegrune); Cvetka Ahlin, mezzo (Grimgerde); Raili Kostia, mezzo (Roβweiβe); Jean Cox, tenor (Siegfried); Ingrid Paller, soprano (Waldvogel); Ruze Baldani, soprano (1st Norn); Helge Dernesch, mezzo (2nd Norn); Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI; Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor / Opera Depot OD 11129-2 (Das Rheingold, live: February 21, 1968), 11130-3 (Die Walküre, live: February 29/March 5, 1968), 11131-3 (Siegfried, live: March 13 & 16, 1968), 11132-4 (Götterdämmerung, live: March 22, 27, & 30, 1968), available FREE for the next five days ONLY

Cox 2

Jean Cox as Siegfried

Opera Depot’s latest free offering is one of the great undiscovered gems of the Wagner catalog: a complete Ring cycle with a superb (and mostly integral) cast from top to bottom. Among the surprises – and delights – you will encounter are Janis Martin as a top-notch Fricka, Jean Cox as Siegfried, Eberhard Katz as Siegmund, Leonore Kirschstein as Freia and Gutrune, Irene Dalis as Waltraute, Ingrid Paller as the Forest Bird, and the absolute best Rheingold Rhinemaidens I’ve ever heard in my life (Hannelore Hammes, Christa Lehnert and Ingrid Liljeberg). Among the strong cast members who are not surprises are the best Alberich (Zoltán Kélémen), Mime (Erwin Wohlfahrt), Wotan (Theo Adam), Fafer/Hunding (Gerd Nienstedt) and Erda (Oralia Dominguez) of their time. But saving the biggest and best surprise for last is the presence of one Nadéžda

Kniplova

Kniplova as Brunnhilde

Kniplová, a powerful Czech soprano with a beautiful timbre and unusual depth of interpretation, as Brünnhilde. Not since Frida Leider have I heard a Brünnhilde who had both a great voice and great interpretation. Kirsten Flagstad interpreted somewhat in her 1950 RAI Walküre, but nowhere else; Astrid Varnay was better than Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson (who just got by with her phenomenal voice), but still not as good as Kniplová. Others (particularly Flagstad, Lindholm and Nilsson) may have had more powerful voices, but for me Kniplová is now my favorite Brünnhildes. She did not sing the trills in “Ho-yo-to-ho,” but did so in the Siegfried final scene. She is in least good voice in Götterdämmerung, although once she warms up (this was, after all, a live performance) she’s pretty good vocally and still VERY interesting dramatically. A very human-sounding Brünnhilde rather than the steel-voiced belter we usually get.

Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch

But what pulls this Ring Cycle together, and makes it so special, is the conducting of Wolfgang Sawallisch and the absolutely stunning performances he drew from the RAI Rome Orchestra. I’ve also liked Sawallisch anyway, for the most part, because he had great taste in singers and a knack of relaxing his casts and orchestra enough to give their very best without losing anything in drama or forward propulsion (a very rare exception is his Elektra recording, which is a wet noodle), but here he absolutely outdoes himself. Everything has a natural ebb and flow the likes of which I’ve never heard anyone duplicate in a Ring Cycle, not even Furtwängler, Krauss, Keilberth or Böhm, superb conductors all. This entire Ring is a miracle in which the music spins out like wool from a skein of yarn, with every single facet and aspect of the singing knitted to the orchestra like sparking sequins. The only drawback is that it’s in mono rather than stereo, and there are a few sound problems in Walküre and Siegfried (more on that below).

Now for the good news. Until Saturday, March 14, this entire set is available for FREE download from Opera Depot. After that, you’ll have to pay for it, but it’s still worth it.

As for the sound problems, they are beyond Opera Depot’s control, but are inherent in the recording he obtained. In the second act of Die Walküre, which begins on CD 1, Track 15 becomes noisy and distorted about 2/3 of the way through, and this distortion continues on Track 1 of CD 2. My solution was to use Noise Reduction, then increase the treble end by about 3 db to compensate for the filtering. It’s not ideal—you really can’t correct it completely—but until RAI Rome turns up a master copy of the tape in pristine sound, it’s the best you can do. In Siegfried, the sound is rather dull and muddy until CD 2, Track 6, when it suddenly becomes brighter and louder. This is pretty easy to fix with a 3.5 db treble boost.

Theo Adam Wotan

Theo Adam as Wotan

But I guarantee that you’ll never hear a more musically perfect or integrated Ring in your life, and the best news of all is that Theo Adam, who, like his colleague Hans Hotter, suffered from asthma and thus went in and out of a bad wobble in the voice, is in excellent voice in the first three operas (he doesn’t sing in Götterdämmerung), as good as Hotter was in the 1955 Keilberth Ring.

Indeed, Sawallisch even makes the Norn scene sound exciting, as did Keilberth and Krauss, in part due to the exciting high soprano of Ruze Baldani and the surprise casting of Helge Dernesch, then still a rising star (though her stardom was just around the corner), as the Second Norn.

Katz

Eberhard Katz

As for the surprises, Kniplová aside: Cox, an American tenor who made but one commercial recording (the Silvio Varviso Meistersinger), is bright-voiced and secure, giving a nice rhythmic bounce to the Forging Song and able to withstand Siegfried’s exhausting demands; Martin is a surprisingly dramatic Fricka; Katz is one of the best Siegmunds you’ll ever hear, not only singing with a clear, bright tone but also in a conversational style that makes him a pleasure to listen to throughout; and Ingrid Paller, a name completely unknown to me, has a surprisingly large high soprano voice with not only a beautiful timbre but also clear diction.

Dominguez Erda

Oralia Dominguez as Erda

But just listen to the RAI Rome Orchestra. Everything is perfect from start to finish, and remember, these were ONE-TIME LIVE PERFORMANCES. No second chances to get it right, no inserts recorded in the studio, just play the operas and do the best you can. The horns are absolutely perfect in both Rheingold’s opening and closing pages, in fact throughout all four operas, and the string section plays with a combination of sheen and dark tone that suits the music perfectly. Nothing goes wrong here, as it did in Keilberth’s 1955 Rheingold. All is well.

Granted, I will still listen to the Keilberth set a bit more often because it is in stereo and it has the “Bayreuth sound,” but if you can accept mostly good mono sound, you’re in for a treat.

Grab this one while you can! And if you don’t get it for free, save up your pennies and buy it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Stefania Argentieri’s Brilliant Prokofiev

Prokofiev

PROKOFIEV: 6 Pieces from Cinderella. Piano Sonatas Nos. 6 & 1. 4 Études, Op. 2. Suggestion Diabolique, Op. 4, No. 4 / Stefania Argentieri, pno / Divine Art DDA 25156

This was a CD sent to me in error. I had requested an entirely different disc, but this is the one that showed up in my mailbox. I hadn’t requested it because I already own the greatest recording of the Prokofiev Piano Sonatas ever, by Natalia Trull, and didn’t feel that I needed to review this.

But I’m glad it came, because it is indeed very good.

Stefania Argentieri is a young Italian pianist (she graduated from the conservatory in 2009) who apparently loves to pose wearing high-heeled boots and standing over the back of a piano, her hand on the keyboard, while she smiles vapidly into the camera. But I won’t hold that against her because she is indeed very good in this repertoire.

This disc is Vol. 14 in Divine Art’s ongoing series of Russian Piano Music, each disc of which features a different composer (what’s the point?). I own the wonderful disc in this series (Vol. 2) of the music of little-known Vladimir Rebikov, played by the late and very fine pianist Anthony Goldstone, who worked for many years with his wife, Caroline Clemmow, as a duo-piano act. Argentieri opens her recital with the rather slight 6 Pieces from Cinderella, apparently hoping to break into the “easy listening” market on local classical radio stations. It is, quite honestly, insubstantial music played in a light vein, as it deserves, but in my view it was not necessary to include it on a one-disc compilation of Prokofiev’s piano music—not when there are the Op. 17 Sarcasms to include—although the third track, “The Quarrel,” is very interesting music. And it is in this piece that we first hear what Argentieri is capable of. She plays with great tensile strength and a very Russian sense of excitement despite her Italian roots, in addition to introducing some interesting moments of rubato.

Where she shows her true mettle is in the Piano Sonatas, played (again) boldly yet with interesting rubato touches. Here Argentieri nearly approaches Trull in her ability to get “inside the notes” and present the music with great insight and energy. My sole complaint was that her piano, a Steinway model D274, was miked extremely closely, resulting in a somewhat hard and glassy sound. Otherwise, these are first-rate performances. My lone complaint was that she made a bit too much of a taffy-pull of the third movement of the Sixth Sonata, turning this “Tempo di valse” into a sort of draggy-sounding ländler.

Yet her performances of the 4 Études is splendid, brisk and taut without overdoing the virtuosity, the second of which contains a rising chromatic harmony that makes one think it might have influenced Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train. She ends with the early and rather rare Suggestion Diabolique, a piece that drives forward like a freight train, mostly in the minor but with some typically Prokofiev-like diminished chords and extended harmonies.

A very good recital, then, and if nothing else an introduction to a fine artist whose name I will be seeking out in future releases.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Merdinger Plays Music from Four Centuries

Foour Centuries cover

FOUR CENTURIES / MOZART: Sonata No. 13 for Piano & Violin in Bb. SCHUMANN: Sonata No. 1 for Violin & Piano in A min. BLOCH: Suite Hebraïque. LEVINSON: Elegy: Crossing the Bridge / Susan Merdinger, pno; David Yonan, vln / Sheridan Music Studio, no number

This CD by pianist Susan Merdinger consists of four duet pieces with violinist David Yonan, each one written in a different century, though to a certain extent this is misleading as Bloch piece is resolutely tonal. With that being said, it was like a breath of fresh air to hear a Mozart piano-violin sonata played on a real, modern piano and not one of those midget tack piano horrors from the 18th century as well as by a violinist who doesn’t use straight tone on every sustained note. The music is typically Mozartean, which means regular, sweet melodic lines with the occasional spurt of harmonic change or dissonance just to keep the cognoscenti listening, but it was delightful to hear when played by real masters of their instruments like these. There are so many delightful turns of phrase in this performance that I’d be spoiling the listening experience for you if I pointed them all out, but I will mention that Yonan uses a tasteful and judicious amount of portamento which helps the music immensely. In addition, Merdinger’s touch and musical style continually holds one’s interest. Oh, how I wish she could record the complete Mozart Piano Concerti with someone like Adám Fischer or Stefan Mai conducting!

Needless to say, a work like the Schumann sonata is perfect for artists of this skill level, and they give it all they have. Seldom have I heard music-making by a modern-day violin-piano duo on this high a level; I think the last time was in the Barbara Govatos-Marcantonio Barone recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas on Bridge. Every note, phrase and accent falls perfectly into place like diamonds on a tiara, and their emotional commitment to the music runs deep.

Bloch was, for me, one of those composers whose work was almost on the cusp of modernism for its time. He lived until 1959 but, being born in 1880, his aesthetic was that of the pre-Stravinsky and Bartók revolution. Like its cello counterpart, the “Rhapsody Hebraïque” Schelomo, Bloch’s Suite Hebraïque is an excellent piece, well constructed and interesting. The principal difference is that it is in three movements, and I was particularly taken by the second, titled “Processional.” Here, again, Merdinger and Yonan give it everything they’ve got, producing a performance of searing intensity.

I found Levinson’s Early Crossing more interesting than the Shtetl Scenes on Merdinger’s other CD (see previous review). Here, he plays with harmony in a way that moves it in and out of tonality while still circling the wagons around it, so to speak, and this teasing of the ear with the harmony is, for me, very interesting. This piece was dedicated to Yonan, who plays it with great feeling. At one point around the 3:44 mark, Levinson has the violinist play on the edge of his strings to produce a weird effect, but by and large this is not an “effects” piece as too much modern music is nowadays. In addition, Levinson’s melodic lines here are more interesting, original and less predictable. I enjoyed this piece very much.

The end result is a very satisfying recital in which both pianist and violinist prove that if you are an intelligent and emotionally committed artist, you can make virtually anything sound great. I give it five fish!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Merdinger Plays Music from the American Melting Pot

American Melting Pot cover

AMERICAN MELTING POT / M. GOULD: Pieces of China.1 VAZQUEZ: Ballade in F# min.2 A. ALTER: Piano Sonata, “My New Beginning, Part 1.3 BARILARI: Toccata Gaucha.2 LEVINSON: Shteti Scenes4* / Susan Merdinger, pno; *David Yonan, vln; *Christopher Ferrer, cel  / Sheridan Music Studio, no number (live: 1New York, March 1990; 2Chicago, October 18, 2013; 3Fair Oaks, CA, November 2018; 4Northbrook, IL, 2016)

This wonderful CD, in addition to celebrating the music of three immigrants who came to the U.S. legally (Fernando Vasquez, Elbio Barilari and Ilya Levinson), is sort of a career retrospective for pianist Susan Merdinger. The earliest of these performances, Morton Gould’s Pieces of China, was given in the presence of the composer in 1990 while the latest, that of Aaron Alter’s Piano Sonata Part 1, was given at Fair Oaks, California in November 2018. In a personal email to me, Merdinger made it clear that although she is demonstrating her commitment to living composers (which I surely appreciate!) and the cultural diversity of the American melting pot, she is not celebrating and does not support people coming into our country illegally. I applaud her for both of these views. My blog will prove that I am a tireless advocate for great artists and composers of all races.

Perhaps most interestingly, we start with a late composition by Morton Gould, whose Symphonettes and Spirituals for Orchestra I recently reviewed. This is the other side of his talent, the serious composer whose work can stand comparison with the best Americans of his generation and after. Pieces of China, written in 1985, was Gould’s tribute to the partnership between our two countries formed during the Nixon years. The six sections of this suite are titled “The Great Wall,” “Fable,” “China Blue,” “Puppets,” “Slow Dance” and “China Chips.” Each has its own character and form, with the third incorporating just a smidgen of jazz feeling into the score. I was particularly impressed, here as in all of the works on this album, by Merdinger’s “deep-in-the-keys” touch on the keyboard in addition to her excitement as an interpreter…listen to “Puppets” for an excellent example. For a live performance from 30 years ago, it is also superbly recorded. The music itself is varied and arresting, with Gould filtering elements of Chinese music through his own personal lens.

Vasquez’ Ballade has a Romantic sound to it, but much of it uses whole tones and augmented chords to fill out its progression, making it sort of a combination of Chopin and Debussy (or perhaps Scriabin, who did much the same thing in his later work). It’s very well constructed as a piece, however, and Merdinger does it full justice. This recording was its world premiere.

Alter’s Piano Sonata, dedicated to Merdinger, opens with strong G major chords before moving into a theme comprised of a series of chime chords in the right hand with running eighth-note figures in the left. There is some development in this music but it is not terribly strong, though I did like the “walking bass” he introduced at around the 2:10 mark. There’s also a very interesting harmonic shift at 3:08, at which point the music comes down lower in the piano’s range though it does not alleviate the repetitive chime chords. There’s something of the feeling of an etude about this piece—a very extended etude, of course, since it runs nearly 13 minutes. In that vein, it is a good piece. Alter avoids tiring the listener despite the somewhat repetitive rhythms by means of the variances noted above, as well as a very tricky passages beginning at about 5:40 in which the left and right hands play completely different, clashing rhythms. It must have taken Merdinger some time to get this under control! Following this, the music shifts into a series of running single-note passages in the right while the left plays its own alternate, running bass line. Again, pretty tricky music, although I did feel that the ending was a bit formulaic.

Barilari, who was born in Uruguay, gives is the 2009 Toccata Gaucha. This, along with the Vazquez piece, was played by Merdinger at the Pianoforte Salon of the Chicago Latin Music Festival. This is an altogether more modern piece than the Vazquez Ballade, using the toccata form much more strongly than the “gaucha” influence. The music rollicks along on a continuous series of rootless chords with occasional pit stops for tonality. What I liked about this piece was Barilari’s ability to continually move the music along in this manner without losing sight of the  structure despite the different tempi and moods used throughout. There are so many shifts and changes in theme and rhythm in its two parts (the first lasting 14:43, the second 6:35) that one is held fascinated. Oddly, it is the second part of this work that is the most dance-like, in either a fast 3 to the bar or perhaps 6/8. And, of course, Merdinger’s outstanding pianism and her effective use of dynamics help greatly. In her hands, this truly emerges as a modern masterpiece. Brava!

We end with Levinson’s Shteti Scenes, originally premiered as a chamber music-with-orchestra version but here presented simply as a piano trio. The music is very Romantic and, although in a minor key, not my cup of tea, though I did kind of like the “Freylakh.” It is, however, played superbly by Merdinger with violinist David Yonan and cellist Christopher Ferrer although the recorded sound is not quite as clear as the 1990 performance of the Gould piece.

Taking in toto, however, this is a fascinating disc of unusual music

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gauvin’s Kinda-Gimmicky New Recital

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NUITS BLANCHES / BORTNIANSKI: Le Faucon: Overture; Ne me parlez point. DALL’OGLIO: Sinfonia Cossica: Allegro. GLUCK: Almide: Enfin, il est enma puissance…Ah! Si la liberté; Oh ciel, quell horrible menace…Gratioso…Le perfide Renaud. Alcide: Mi sorprende; In qual mar…Dei clementi. FOMINE: Les Cochers au relais. BEREZOVSKI: Demofoonte: Mentre il cor; Misero pargoletto  / Karina Gauvin, sop; Pacific Baroque Orch., Alexander Weimann, fp/cond / Atma Classique ACD2 2791

With the sterling voice and obviously high artistic intelligence that she possesses, one would think that, now several years into her international career, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin would begin using her great talent in the service of 20th and/or 21st-century music that she could sing like no one else. Instead, what we have here is another dip into the good ol’ Barococo that classical music radio stations have been pushing since the mid-1950s.

It remains the great blight of most classical artists today that they refuse to play or sing the music of today. When one considers what Bethany Beardslee, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Mack Harrell, Sylvia Marlowe, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sarah Maria Sun and Rohan de Saram did in the past or continue to do today, combining great classics with contemporary works in their repertoires, it saddens one to see a retrenchment towards the old music and only the old music. I have nothing against the very best of the older composers and in fact have reviewed much of their music on my blog, but it does not predominate for two very good reasons. 1) Most modern performances of older music cannot hold a candle to the ones already recorded, and 2), perhaps more importantly, it’s time for classical audiences to start weaning themselves off a steady diet of the old stuff and start paying attention to music of their time.

Even during my formative years as a classical listener, when I was indeed filling many hours listening to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, I was also listening to the then-new and current works of Shostakovich, Britten, Segerstam, Stravinsky (who didn’t die until I was 20 years old), Schuman, Piston, Roy Harris and Copland. That was the contemporary music of my time, and I reveled in it. And even today, I heartily enjoy and celebrate the discovery of such modern masters as Kalevi Aho, Sorabji (now long gone, but his music didn’t even begin to be recorded until the mid-1970s), Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Karałow and Seabourne, not to mention some composers I missed in my earlier years like Julián Carrillo and Harry Partch. How I wish that Gauvin would emulate the career path of a soprano like Sarah Maria Sun!

But here she is, presenting an album titled, in English, Sleepless Nights: Opera tunes in the heart of Russia in the 18th century. And “tunes” is clearly the operative word, because except for the truly great music of Gluck, one of my 18th-century idols, the music here is routine and formulaic. We get the arias (and, sadly, orchestral music) of such also-ran composers as Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski (1751-1825), Domenico Dall’Oglio, Evstignei Ipatievich Fomine (1761-1800) and Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). And why? Just because it’s not usually recorded? There’s a reason it’s not usually recorded. These composers just studied the scores of Handel and wrote imitative music with no originality and little interest.

To their credit, the HIP orchestra of the Pacific Baroque plays not only with great energy but also with a fine legato, something most HIP orchestras—even some very famous ones—do not. But as soon as you hear the first notes of the recitative from Gluck’s Armide, you realize that you’re in another world, a world of great art and not just of entertainment, and to her credit Gauvin rips into this music with the full magnificence of her vocal and histrionic powers. Oh, how I wish that Atma Classique had given us a new complete Armide with Gauvin, a really fine tenor, and this orchestra! I would have reveled in it, listened with rapt attention from start to finish, and (hopefully) given it a rave review, if these excerpts are any indication. Gauvin’s assumption of the sorceress is absolutely first-rate. Everything is perfectly sung and interpreted, even better than Mireille Delunsch in the complete recording with Marc Minkowski on DGG. These excerpts, as well as the ones from Gluck’s Alcide, are clearly the high-water-marks of this album. In addition to Gauvin’s high musicianship and sense of drama, the orchestra follows her in every subtle touch and gesture that she imparts to the music, almost as if she herself were conducting it. Their joint performance of “Ah! Sí la liberté” is a masterpiece of subtle gestures, the music emerging as touching without spilling over into pathos or bathos. It is a perfect reading, as is the more dramatic aria, “Le perfide Renaud me fuit.” I was completely enthralled by these pieces from start to finish.

Yet no sooner has Gluck finished than we get a kind of Gluck-imitation in Bortnianski’s overture to Le Faucon, which quickly turns into a sort of pseudo-Handel rather quickly. And this is the best of the other pieces on this CD.

Incidentally, the liner notes open with something I hadn’t known but wasn’t terribly surprised by, that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote to his old school friend, Georg Erdmann who was consul of Danzig to the Empress Catherine I of Russia, asking about a possible position at her court. It wasn’t so much that he was dying to work in Russia in and of itself, but he knew that the Russian royalty had much greater funds at their disposal to perform his music than the miserable misers of Leipzig, who nickel-and-dimed Bach throughout his career there, forcing him to use substandard forces for the performances of his larger works. This, folks, is the reason he sometimes had to resort to “one-to-a-part” choruses, not because he liked them, the reason he had to play that wheezy old organ, which he heartily disliked, much preferring the larger, more colorful organs of other cities, and also the reason he was forced to use severely cut-down orchestras. When his son Carl Philipp presented large excerpts from his Mass in b minor in the late 18th century, he used an orchestra of some 70 or 80 players and a chorus close to 100 voices. THAT was what his father wanted. And they didn’t sing or play in constant straight tone, either. One more lesson for all of you HIP Nazis out there.

Gauvin is equally superb in the brief excerpts from Gluck’s Alcide, one of the few Gluck operas I haven’t heard much of. Perhaps Atma Classique can give us a complete Alcide with Gauvin someday…though I’d much rather hear her sing The Rake’s Progress or Messiaen’s Harawi.

But hey, just listen! After the excerpts from Alcide, we get Fomine’s overture to The Postal Coachman at the Railway Station! Whoopee-i-yo-ki-yay! Let’s all party! Just listen to those up-and-down-the-scale runs by the strings! How…ordinary! Gauvin follows this with one of those whoops-doopsy Baroque arias with all the runs and trills, some folderol from Berezovski’s Demofoonte (which Google Translate tells me means “Demo Phone” in English).

So there you have it. Two great islands of art courtesy of Christoph Willibald Gluck in a sea of Barococo. If you’re a Gauvin fan, however, you will surely want to hear her sing the Gluck. I know I would.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Gewandhaus Brass Quintet is “Customised”

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CUSTOMISED / HUTCHINSON: Brass Quintet. McKEE: Iron Horses. IOANNIDES: Reminiszenzen. SCHLEIERMACHER: Zögernde Klangordnung. MILLINER: Passionata in Modo di Jazz / Gewandhaus Brass Quintet: Lukas Beno, Jonathan Müller, tpt; Tobias Hasselt, tb; Jan Wessely, Fr-hn; David Cribb, tuba / Genuin 20693

The Gewandhaus Brass Quintet is comprised of four relatively youngish members of the famous orchestra bearing the same name. In 2018-19 they commissioned these five works from the composers—Robert Hutchinson, Kevin McKee, Ayis Ioannides, Steffen Schleiermacher and Jesse Milliner, of which only Ioannides was born before 1970—and present them here in their first recordings.

The Hutchinson Brass Quintet starts out lively enough in the same sort of style that Leonard Salzedo was using in the early 1960s: peppy, slightly modern-sounding music with a good beat, not too challenging to the ear. But at least the Gewandhaus players seem to be having a real ball with it, and carry over their enthusiasm to the listener. Even the French horn sounds pretty bright-toned, which I really appreciated, and their blend is absolutely top-notch. The third movement, with its rapid and tricky syncopations, is by far the most challenging, and the quintet eats up the music as if they had written it themselves.

McKee’s Iron Horse, in two movements, is another relatively tonal crowd-pleaser, its slow first movement having a nice melodic line. The second movement, “Highball on White Pass,” is lively and playful, with a nice use of rhythm as well as accelerando.

With Ioannides’ Reminiszensen, we have a piece with subtler if equally tricky use of rhythm and also a more complex and deft use of harmony. The music is still tonal, but the composer introduces several little shifts in the underlying chords that keep it from sounding too comfortable or “regular.” He also uses a canon around the 3:42 mark to add interest, and at 5:10 creates another one, more syncopated this time.

Schleiermacher’s Zögernde Klangordnung opens with a trumpet fanfare, then moves to the trombone and tuba and back again to the fanfare, but this time with the trombone playing raspberries with the mute. The music also plays with rhythm, introducing fast little outbursts in the otherwise smooth line, and the music develops with the brass fanfares being varied and extended. This was my favorite piece on the album up to this point. The dry wit continues throughout, playing with the listener.

We end our little excursion with Milliner’s Passionata in Modo di Jazz, and although the first, slow movement has only a little jazz feeling in it the composer has fun playing with shifting rhythms and tempi. The same is pretty much true for the second movement…or, perhaps I should say that the music would sound jazzier in the hands of musicians who had more of a feel for jazz “time.” As it is, the Gewandhaus players perform it with a bounce but no swing.

So there you have it. A fun, light program, very well played, with one real gem in the mix.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Il Furibondo Plays Reger

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REGER: String Trios Nos. 2 & 1 / String Trio Il Furibondo: Liana Mosca, vln; Gianni de Rosa, vla; Marcello Scandelli, cel / Solo Musica SM 323

I have an ambivalence towards Reger’s music. Some of it I like very much, some I like a little bit, and some of it I absolutely hate, particularly his organ works which seemed to bring out his most turgid side.

But let’s face it. You look at any photo or drawing of Reger and the word “jolly” never comes to mind. For that matter, he doesn’t even look contented. He always looks as if the photographer has just run over his dear pet cat. He looks like the kind of guy your least-favorite maiden aunt married and drags around to family gatherings. Were he alive today, he could probably do a great Brother Theodore imitation.

Being an Italian trio, however, Il Furibondo brings a bit of the Latin touch to his music. This doesn’t help a great deal in the sad or turgid passages, but in the livelier moments they manage to perk his music up a little. Nevertheless, you have to accept the sad with the energetic in Reger, and they do not gloss over these sections or make them uninteresting to listen to.

I was also quite surprised to hear occasional moments of portamento in their playing—historically accurate but not what most people “want” to hear nowadays. Like so many CDs that come my way nowadays, these two works are programmed on the CD in the reverse order of their composition. I have no idea why except that some people consider the second trio to be a richer and more mature composition. But isn’t the whole point of hearing older works that one should be able to hear an artist’s development? Imagine a CD of assorted Beethoven Sonatas that begins with the “Waldstein” or No. 30, then gives you the “Pathétique,” and then jumps backwards to Sonata No. 1. What’s the purpose of that?

But to be truthful, the first string trio is written in the same vein though it tends to be clearer in texture than the second.

I think what impressed me most about these works was their generally quiet and “inner” means of expression. I’ve always felt that Reger was a lonely man in his personal and private life, and much of his music reflects that loneliness. This is not music that will lift your spirits, but it is music that will turn you towards self-reflection, and Il Furibondo bring out all the desolation and loneliness in this music.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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